Monthly Archives: February 2008

the march of the monks

MonksI left a rather grumpy James in bed to get up at 6am and go and see the Luang Prabang monks do their daily walk down the main street collecting alms (rice and food) from the local towns people. Of course this religious ritual has become somewhat of a tourist parade but it is hugely captivating to watch the huge long line of brightly orange garbed monks, mainly the younger ones, in a long chain winding their way down the road.

Streets of Luang PrabangFor the rest of the day James and I decided to get involved with some adventure sports in the countryside around Luang Prabang. So we spent two hours in the morning mountain biking up and down some very rough roads out of the town past small villages, buffalo and coconut tree fields and ended up on the banks of the River Nam Kaun where our guide transferred us into a cute little two seater kayak and off we went down the river past some stunning scenery. In fact it was the scenery that proved to be my undoing. The river in the dry season is very flat and calm so the kayaking is fairly leisurely with no real rapids to speak of. Lured into a false sense of security and desperately wanting to photograph the scenery I pulled out my camera from the dry bag and took lots of photos. River scenes, Luang Prabang After a picnic lunch on the banks I decided to keep the camera out, hooked onto my life jacket. Then we hit our first rapids. These were the smallest, rippling rapids known to man but somehow they managed to hit our kayak side on and we capsized and along with myself and James my beloved camera tumbled into the water. Game Over. To my amazement two days later the camera is completely fine apart from the fact that the flash doesn’t work, long live the canon!

Night Market, Luang PrabangLuang Prabang has been the loveliest place to spend a few days. The old town is completely set up for tourists but it feels so laid back and is so picturesque it’s hard not to love. Our guest house was right opposite the Mekong and it was great just spending a day wandering around the temples, the roads, seeing the beautiful small colonial houses and the river peeking through the palm trees surrounding the peninsula. The town also has a small, colourful and embarrassingly cheap night market, even James didn’t bother bargaining. We spent our evening playing cribbage in the Lao Lao beer garden eating Buffalo steaks and drinking Beerlao (probably the best beer in SE Asia) and drinking two for one Lao whisky cocktails, this is definitely the life!

messing about on the Mekong

Flight of the Gibbon
Descending down between platforms, ThailandJames and I saw a slightly recovered, but still weak Mum off at Chiang Mai airport for her flight home and then went about planning our escape to Laos, but before leaving Thailand we found out about a zip-line tour through the forest canopy which both of us had previously done in Costa Rica but had never heard about being able to do in Thailand. The reason for this transpired to be the fact the activity only opened in January this year.

“We have had two months and no accidents or deaths!” Our grinning guides proudly announced.

Huge trees in the forest, ThailandWe started off visiting a nearby waterfall in the middle of some lush green forest with views out across the valley. It would have been a very peaceful morning had not the guy on our trip (a Hawaiian in Thailand with his wife for dental treatment!) said he’d seen James going further up to the top. So I waited for James to reappear and after a while as the others started walking back down became a little concerned so I went to check he was okay. I walked a good 20 minutes steeply up the steps, scrambling up over some slippery earth and so far up that I got turned back by a bloke with a large knife! And still no James. By now I’m convinced he’s fallen down unconscious somewhere. Of course I ran into him looking for me as I was going down, he’d been back at the start all along. Oh well, I was just glad to find him in one piece!

James incoming!After lunch we headed out to our starting platform, one of fifteen, for the zip-lining. For three hours the eight of us in the group got harnessed up to long lines from platforms suspended up in huge thick trees in the forest and went zooming along them or dropped down between platforms. Our guides were hugely entertaining, even when my bamboo stick ‘break’ that was tucked into my side strap nutted one of them in the crotch as I came into land! James spent most of the afternoon taking very amusing videos of himself zooming down the lines. It was huge amounts of fun especially flying over parts of the valley and seeing the canopy below you as you whiz along and finally stop, or in my case forget to use the break and half crash, into the guide waiting for you at the next platform. 

Chiang Mai Walking Market, ThailandWe got back to Chiang Mai with enough time to take a stroll through the walking night market, I gazed hungry eyed at all the stalls and crafts on sale but managed to restrain myself by just buying some fisherman pants and a banana waffle. Then we came back for a final farewell to the wonderful luxury of the Tri Yaan Na Ros and got picked up by minibus to take us to Chiang Kong and the Laos border.

Cows on the Mekong, LaosCrossing into Laos was one of those bizarre exercises in Asian chaotic organisation which seems, somehow, to work surprisingly well. We’d booked a kind of arranged trip to get us to Luang Prabang. Five hours to get to the Boom house Guest House on the border where instead of arriving for breakfast at 6am we arrived at 3am but got given a really cheap and fairly nice room so I managed to get a welcome four hours sleep. After breakfast we were taken down to the Thai immigration, got stamped out of the country, then across the river in a tiny boat to the somewhat chaotic immigration for Laos on the far shores. Despite the numbers of tourists milling around and filling in forms, changing currencies and crowding around the booths it was only about 35 minutes to get a visa and the entry passport stamped before a few of us were relaxing in a cafe up the road before the slow boat was due to leave.

Views down the Mekong, LaosThere are two ways to get from this border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, a speed boat or a slow boat and I am pretty glad we opted for the slow one. The speed boats zoom down the river dodging huge rocky outcrops and the occupants, beside getting sprayed, have to wear crash helmets, apparently when they do crash it tends to be the kind of head on collision with a rock or another speed boat where the survivors number 0, crash helmets or not! Our slow boat was a long brightly coloured wooden boat with bench seats, a well stocked bar at the back and it was carrying about 80 passengers, so fairly crowded, and pretty much all farang(tourists). The Mekong is a beautiful river, a wide flowing silty river that cut through scenery of forested limestone hills, high white sandy banks with jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the edges of the river banks. We saw the occasional herds of black and pink (!) buffalo grazing on the shores, fishermen drifting by in long thin wooden boats, their nets suspended from the rocks, and small groups of children playing in the water by the banks of tiny bamboo villages on stilts tucked away within the trees. We sat with bottles of very drinkable BeerLao and watched the scenery roll past.

James boarding our boat at Pak Beng, LaosWe spent the night in a little rustic stop over village, full of guest houses,  called Pak Beng and were thankful that our guide had got us to pre book a room back at the border crossing, as a small group of us were taken out of the throng of locals, farang and rucksacks and went up the hill to the Boun Mee Guest House which was basic but nice with a wide wooden terrace over looking the now darkening Mekong. Ben and Ronnie, an English couple we’d been chatting to on the boat came down and Ben’s usual blond afro was considerably larger than it had been during the day. In trying to get the lights to work in their room he’d flicked a breaker and been thrown across the room by an electric shock. Luckily he didn’t seem to worse for the wear and the owners found them a less deadly room for the night. Locals on the Mekong, LaosThe next day we continued for about 7 hours down the river, by now my bottom was getting a little sore, despite the cushions and I was hugely thankful when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. I also realised that I am getting old. A small group of 21 year old Brits, Aussies and Americans were rowdily doing beer bongs at the back of the boat and having the most inane conversations I have ever heard. There is a limit to how often the word ‘like’ should be used in a sentence, certainly not as every other word! James’s all time favourite quote from one of the American guys to one of the British guys was:

“Didn’t you guys like just have a war with Argentina?”

Enough said! I am too old to be hanging out with 21 year old travelling piss heads anymore. James says I am turning into a travelling snob. Well with 46 countries, 4 months in India and having been away for 11 months I think I have earned the right to take the backpacking high ground. However, I think he maybe right!

Port sunset in Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang is lovely, relaxed, picturesque, friendly and really laid back. The buildings are small and wooden with sloping roofs, potted plants and small balconies and the whole old part of the town is just ridiculously, charmingly cute. We wondered around a little last night after finding a cute guest house opposite the banks of the Mekong. We had a really cheap and really gorgeous dinner (I had Laos aubergine, chicken and bean noodle soup, James had a cheese burger!) along the main street of restaurants before having a few beers in a small bar and heading home to bed. This morning we’ve just been wondering around the streets, long the river side and visiting a beautiful old Buddhist temple called Wat Xieng Thong. There are brightly robed monks walking about everywhere, in fact they are even in the internet cafes checking their emails!

ups and downs in the hill tribes of Chiang Dao

Mum and her elephantDay one – Elephants, bamboo rafts and bartering
We started our three day journey in Chiang Dao, about two hours north of Chiang Mai where we met Dan and Amber, a really lovely couple from the gold coast in Australia who were also on our trip. Just as well really, three days with just us Linneys and who knows what could have happened. The first day was mainly a lot of the more fun activities and not so much trekking which was cool. Limestone hills, Chiang Dao areaWe had a very funny guide called Tory who laughed at absolutely everything he told us, whether it was serious or not and sang us the cutest kids song about elephants in English and Thai! We started off with a quick visit to the local market which was a mishmash of cheap clothing, herbs, large bush knives and retro US army t-shirts. Then we headed off by jeep to where three large Asian Elephants were waiting to take us the one hour journey to the first hill tribe village, Palaung.

Lisu KidThe hill tribes live generally around 1000m in Thailand and originally came from China, Tibet, Laos or Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are being discouraged from their slash-and-burn agriculture and now much of the area is protected or being planted. The government also stopped their very lucrative trade in opium so now their main income is via tourism, hosting trekking groups and selling handicrafts.

Mum managed to get the biggest elephant all to herself and it spent most of the scenic leisurely ride trying to overtake Dan and Amber’s in front. On the final steep path down to the Palaung village James and I nearly slid off the front of ours and gripped onto the seat for dear life as we teetered down the path. Lisu Tribe WomanThe villages are a group of bamboo houses on stilts, most with solar panels outside and lots of squealing piglets, chickens and half fox/half dog breeds running around. The women were all waiting for us round in a circle on the ground in traditional colourful dress displaying their handicrafts to buy. I’m sure they go and change into jeans the minute the tourists leave. They were really lovely though and every time they smiled you got a sight of red and black stained teeth from all the betel they chew.

Mum barginning!After a tasty lunch we took the jeep onto visit a few more villages seeing on the way lots of bamboo houses, banana plants, a baby monkey riding on the back of a local dog, the men in their very kitsch blue velvet baggy pants, pigs and roosters. Mum brought a bag from one Lisu tribe woman and I don’t think the woman was quite prepared for the bargaining technique. Mum just kept leaning her head on one side and hugging her around the shoulders saying, “Go on, 120 Baht!” To the amazement of us all it worked far better than our bartering! When we reached the Akka tribe the women were waiting for us and practically jumped us with hats, bags and jewellery. It was surprisingly good natured though and they keep laughing and smiling even when we didn’t buy anything. James simply said,

“Look this is all women’s stuff. There are only two women in my life, and they are both over there.”

Raft hitchhikersWe finished the day with a long relaxing bamboo rafting trip down the river on literally sticks of bamboo bound together. We each had a go pushing the rafts through the shallow water with the long bamboo poles before letting the guide take over whilst we enjoyed the scenery. At one point three local boys in their underpants hijacked Dan and Amber’s raft and spent the next twenty minutes jumping and somersaulting off the back before finally disappearing up the banks. The Thai people really do seem to be laughing and smiling pretty much all the time! It was just before dark when we reached our bamboo hut in the Lisu village we were sleeping in. An almost full moon was shining above the limestone hills, we had a gorgeous dinner of sausage and chicken curries with rice and were all in bed by 9 o’clock.

Mum in the cavesDay Two – Extreme caving, claustrophobia and Thai whisky
The village roosters were rather over-enthusiastic and had two rather loud rehearsals in the middle of the night before finally timing their vocal announcements with actual daylight. As a result we were all awake fairly early and sat outside our hut watching small male piglets running after the larger females and trying unsuccessfully to mount them until breakfast was ready! For the day we had our very own velvet-trousered guide, who spoke no English but who none-the-less turned out to be a bit of a joker, to take us first caving and then to a local waterfall. The caving was fantastic, we spent about 90 minutes crawling, walking and scrambling through passageways to different chambers with immense stalactite and stalagmite formations. I’d forgotten, however, that James is considerably more claustrophobic than I am and when we finally got outside he was a good deal more relieved than the rest of us to be once more in the fresh air. Chiang Dao Mountain from Lisu NalaoWe trekked along the river side over some Indiana Jones-Style bridges to a small waterfall before making our way back up over the hill sides until about 4pm we came to our second Lisu village for the night. This time our bamboo hut had a terrace overlooking the whole valley to Chiang Dao mountain on the other side. Dan and the whisky man, Lisu NalaoThe villagers were a lot more friendly, within 10 minutes of arriving we all had a large bottle of Chang beer in hand and shortly afterwards the village drunk (?) arrived with a large bottle of home brewed whisky and a few small glasses and insisted that we spend the next hour drinking with him. The whisky was pretty strong, actually you could probably have got drunk just inhaling the stuff. After a few whiskies, beers and the luxury of a sit down toilet we were all feeling very relaxed as we sat down for a Thai dinner and watched the sky darken over the mountains.

Local ShamenDay three – Shaman, Blind caves and Mum is pushed to the limit
Our final day was the toughest hiking but some beautiful scenery and our guide for this day, a fifty-nine year old Lisu man with clipped words in English, a very peculiar sense of humour and a huge beaming smile. He was hugely surprised that Mum was old enough to have had James and I, he spent the rest of the day calling her Mama to our amusement! We stopped for lunch in a small village and were given some strange tea to drink by the local shaman in the cut off stems of bamboo trunks. We all then had to take a brightly coloured woven wrist band for luck. Dan and James were slightly horrified at the un-manliness of the orange ones they picked and announced they were taking them off the minute we got back to Chiang Dao! Village pigletWe trekked down steep paths through teak and bamboo forests, the earth changing colour from sand, to yellow-orange, to deep red clays. Huge brown fallen leaves lined the track and crunched underfoot and the sunlight filtered through the yellow and orange ones still on the trees. Our guide kept merrily kicking huge Buffalo turds out of the path and frequently hopped off to hack down bamboo shoots with his huge knife to make us walking sticks. He also cut down a huge stem which his assistant guide-in-training later made into long bowls for our lunch!

Cutting Bamboo for lunch bowlsBefore lunch we explored one more cave that cut right across the rock-face in front of the path. Even though this one had no crawling James wisely elected to stay outside. It was then we realised all our torches were in our packs which we’d left to be driven to our pick-up point. So we went in with the guide’s not-very-bright torch and Dan’s even-less-bright torch. The chambers in the cave were huge and though it wasn’t nearly as hard going as the previous cave it was more unsettling as we could hardly see where we were going. It was like the blind leading the blind. Lunch was rice and vegetable with chilli tuna in our very cool bamboo bowls. By now Mum was starting to have a dodgy stomach, probably from the Thai whisky the night before. Unfortunately we still had over two hours of particularly steep uphill trekking to do to reach our pick up. Mum made it but only just with a little help from James and I along the way. Then our truck broke down taking us to Chiang Dao to pick up the rest of our stuff so we had to wait another hour to get rescued.

“See this is the real travelling,” I joked to Mum, “food poisoning and transport breaking down when you least expect it.” She didn’t look amused!

Tri Yaan Na Ros, Colonial House, Chiang MaiTwo hours later we were back in Chiang Mai, dropped Dan and Amber off at their hotel and then we headed to the Tri Yaan Na Ros. To say this place is beautiful is the understatement of the year. It’s small, cosy, gorgeous, lovely, picturesque and amusingly costs about the same as a travel lodge in the UK! James disappeared immediately into his room and found the sports channel and Mum and I collapsed onto two huge dark wood four poster beds draped with maroon silk and white mosquito nets. Our room opens onto a balcony that overlooks a turquoise green swimming pool lined with white columns and palm trees. Sadly Mum is still in bed recovering from traveller’s diarrhea today but at least it’s a pretty fantastic bed to be ill in. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when planning a lovely holiday for her with James and I in Thailand!

the Linneys at large

Reclining Buddha, BangkokWell the Linneys are out in force in Thailand, the brother, the mother and me. James arrived on Thursday, failed to notice I’d chopped off all my hair and then went and got his cut much shorter, honestly, he is always stealing my thunder. By all accounts he had a wicked time in South Africa, Nambia and Botswana! Then Mum arrived on Saturday, James and I went to meet her at the new swanky airport in Bangkok with balloons (well they were my idea, James was slowly drifting away from me in the arrivals hall)! On Sunday James went off to see tigers and the Bridge of the River Kwai and Mum and I went for a day’s sightseeing with Hester and Tuli, two girls from the guesthouse.

Mum getting friendly at Wat Po, BangkokWe went back to Jim Thompson house and had a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant, they have a huge pond there that randomly has a large ray inside…bizarre. Afterwards we caught one of the local taxi boats up the Klong, one of Bangkoks original canals and amde our way over to the Grand Palace. Sadly my anal organisation had failied to take into account that the palace shut at 3.30pm and it was 3pm. Oops. So we went across to Wat Po instead and saw the huge, and I mean huge reclining gold-guilded, reclining buddha. It is housed in this beautiful temple with red painted wood on the ceiling, intricate paintings of the buddha’s life around the outside and the back is dominated by his feet, huge soles of black stone decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. Back down the river and into the heart of shopping wonderland that is Siam, Mum and I did some credit card massaging in the department stores before heading back to Suk11. We sent Mum off for a foot and shoulder massage and James reappeared having had his photo taken with some huge (apparently tame?) tigers and went straight off to update his facebook profile picture, good to know I’m not the only geek in the family then!

Chiang Mai monksNow we are up in Chiang Mai and heading off on our three day trekking tour into the hill tribes of Northern Thailand…see you in three days!

making the cut

Buddas in Wat Arun, Bangkok Amazing how the time passes when you are doing nothing. I am thoroughly enjoying have a sabbatical from my sabbatical in Bangkok. The hostel I am staying in Suk11 is lovely, the kind of place where you only have to been there for about 2 days and every time you come downstairs for a beer, cup of coffee or breakfast there are people to chat to. There’s quite an interesting mix of people here as well, everyone from couples with young children from Korea and Japan, first time fresh faced 18 year olds enjoying their first trip abroad to long term residents, the old white bearded guys who randomly work their ways around Asia and I’ve met a French chef, a Canadian Liquid dancer and an English life painter!

Wat Arun moasaics, BangkokI have done some very light sight-seeing though. Wat Arun Bangkok I went to visit Jim Thompsons house, an American born in 1906 who came to Thailand at the end of the war and is responsible for bringing Thai silk to the international design stage. He built this beautiful traditional style house on the banks of Bangkok’s canals and you have a cute half hour guided tour before going to drool over silk scarves in the shop afterwards. Then yesterday before picking my brother up from the airport I got a boat up the river to Wat Arun, the dawn temple which looks unimpressive from a distance but is fascinating close up.Every inch is covered in ceramic mosaics of all colours shapes and sizes. A little like someone has smashed up their mother’s china sets and used them to decorate a Buddist stupa! Having seenBuddist temples in Sri Lanka, Nepal and India it’s interesting to see the differences in the Thai architecture. There is more detail, and a lot more curves and points sticking out everywhere. The monks are also back in orange (as in Sri Lanka) rather than the deep maroons and reds of Nepal and India.

New hair in Suk11On Wednesday I went to pick up my Vietnam visa, the easiest visa I have ever had to get. Virtually no queue and very efficient, after the Indian Embassy debacle I am permanently visa paranoid! I came out of the embassy and walked past a hairdressers, stopped and stood contemplating an idea for a good five minutes in the middle of the pavement before turning around, walking through the door and asking them to cut off all my hair! My hair has been driving me mad for ages, ten months without a hairdresser and no heat styling within range is not a good combination. I think the stylist found the whole experience fairly traumatic, the average Asian head of hair is definitely a world away from my psuedo afro mop! It is now pretty much as short as when I was 18, although curly and once the initial shock wore off I’ve decided kind of like it, plus it’s so much easier to deal with. I went to the market to buy some hair bands, and decided I don’t look too much like a boy! Anyway, in a month or so it’ll be longer and then the fro will finally be back in force!

Clara comes out of the rabbit hole

I’m in Thailand, a new country for the first time in months which is quite exciting. The thing is, and this is going to sound a little strange, I’m experiencing a very bizarre kind of culture shock. Ever since I got here I’m wondering around with a look of stupefied amazement on my face and wandering what on earth happened to all the chaos. I’ve been in India for four months, Nepal and Sri Lanka before that and I suddenly feel like I’ve abruptly arrived back into the western world. Let me explain.

  1. Thailand is clean - compared to India it is super spotless, I-would-eat-my-dinner-off-these-pavements, clean.
  2. There is hardly any rubbish, anywhere around.
  3. There are actual pavements, that people actually use to walk on.
  4. The traffic makes barely any attempt to kill you, the nearest I had was a motorbike using the pavement my first night, but it swerved far too early to actually pose a threat!
  5. There are no cows in the city, or monkeys, or buffalo and the street dogs look plump and glossy coated.
  6. There is no shit, anywhere, I’ve seen nobody spit and nobody pissing in public.
  7. The electrics look like there is actually a system involved in their wiring.
  8. Nobody is trying to sell me anything! Even the taxi drivers don’t seem especially eager to get a fare.
  9. Nobody stares at me if I walk down the street.
  10. The one beggar woman near my hostel looks cleaner, better groomed and dressed than I do, and sits with her hands clasped as if she is meditating rather than asking for money.
  11. Locals are walking around in skin tight clothing and half the girls have their legs out. I was shocked. I look positively conservative in my Indian tops and jeans now!
  12. The cars don’t use their horns, ever!
  13. They have lots of Tescos, and Boots!

PattayaDon’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, everything is shiny, clean and very organised. It’s great, but part of me misses the crazy-ass chaos and colourfulness of India. I feel like Alice coming back out of the rabbit hole or returning through the looking glass to her own side. It’s very odd.

I arrived on Friday night and went to a guest house near the airport, just for the night. I had one beer around 6pm and had to go and lie down for an hour. The liver is sorely out of practice. The next day I had fun in the sub zero air conditioned sky train and then took the bus 2 hours to Pattaya on the coast to visit my godfather Nick who has lived here since the late eighties.

It was really nice to spend the weekend in a house. Nick has two gorgeous dogs, a barrel-bellied Doberman called Sadie and a white puff-ball called Tommy. I relaxed with a cup of Earl Grey tea outside, reading the papers while he was playing his weekend bridge. Just what I needed to unwind. That evening I put on the one dress I have with me as the two of us had been invited for a six course, farewell dinner for a friend of Nick’s in a beautiful penthouse apartment overlooking the city. This is the crazy contrast of my life now, one minute I’m washing street filth from my feet in a cold shower of a grotty guest house room in Kolkata, and the next I’m drinking Kir Royal in penthouse apartments in Thailand. My Godfather, Nick Fun eh! As much as I could have happily spent the rest of the week drinking tea, playing with the dogs, listening to Opera and reading The Spectator in the garden at my godfather’s, I had to sort visas and the like, so this afternoon I came back to Bangkok. I’m staying in the newer part of town, the idea of staying in Khaosan road was just too much of a cliche, although I can’t possibly leave SE Asia without visiting and finding out just what a Thai girl can do with a ping pong ball! So I’m planning on sweet talking the embassies and doing a spot of shopping before the Linney madness, in the shape of my brother and Mum arrive at the end of the week. I’ve managed to roll up my curry stained combats to show 4 inches of leg and I’m sporting my Save Tibet T-shirt, but honestly I still look overdressed. With my newly accquired mosquito bites and India-city-pollution spots, not to mention what the humidity here is doing to my hair, quite frankly, I’ve looked better! Ah well, time for my daily liver workout, beer anyone?

a final farewell to the land of chaos and charm

The Black Hole of Calcutta

Kolkata street sceneI have been praising the efficiency of the Indian rail system to several people over the last month, every train I have caught in the four months I’ve been here has left on time and arrived on time, if not early. I should have known better. My journey from Varanasi to Kolkata should have taken a mere 14 hours, arriving at the crack of dawn. It was almost two hours late arriving in Varanasi, which was fine by me as I figured it would be nicer to arrive in the city at 8.30am rather than 6! In my hurry to get a cycle rickshaw from the guest house, I forgot to ask them to pack me some food. No worries, I thought, a pack of crisps and chocolate chip cookies and two oranges will do me just fine until I get breakfast in Kolkata. Little did I know that a shooting by police of political protesters in West Bengal had caused the political party to call for a shut down of local trains, taxis, buses, shops and services in the city. My train was therefore delayed by, get this, 13 hours. It just sat at one station for 4 hours and another for about 6, unmoving and stationary. And there were no chai men. Just when I Shoe Shine Kolkataneed India’s no. 1 liquid refreshment of choice, it is cruelly taken away. No chai men, nobody selling samosas, pani puri or anything. In 24 hours I had a packet of magic masala crisps, eight chocolate chip cookies, two pip filled oranges, a packet of bombay mix and four of the world’s smallest bananas. I read through both my books, the Times of India twice and listened to the Tenacious D soundtrack about five times to try and keep myself sane. I finally arrived at Howrah station at 7pm, hot, sweaty, with badger breath that could have stopped a charging buffalo, and in a filthy temper. The prepaid taxi booths were staffed but, due to the strike, apparently not operating. I asked them if they could just tell me how much a taxi would be into town. They refused, meanwhile I have three taxi-wallahs all yelling in my ear. At this point I snapped and wheeling round yelled at the nearest one.

“I have just been sitting on an over-heated train for the last 26 hours, most of it not moving due to reasons I cannot understand and now you are trying to screw me just because you think I have ATM tattooed on my forehead. I DO NOT NEED THIS RIGHT NOW!

“Okay Madam, no problem, 200 rupees.”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

At this point a French Canadian couple appeared and saved me from committing taxi wallah-homicide on my final days in India, and took me off in their taxi. I checked into my room, went out, got a take-away chicken burger and sat on my bed watching ‘Home Alone’ on Star Movies and finally relaxed. India, it seemed, wanted to give me one final reminder of her fickleness!

Victoria MonumentToday I have walked and walked all around Chowringee and BBD Bagh areas of Kolkata. It’s a fascinating city, from the gardens along the river, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, back streets with pavements crowded with shoe-shiners, vegetable stands, beggars and food stalls to huge crumbling relics of the British rule. The streets are clogged with yellow taxis, white ambassadors and local cars, and despite the notable absence of motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws on the main roads, every driver sits on their horns the entire time and the city seems to reverberate with the sounds of honking from morning until night. By five I was exhausted and collapsed into the one beacon of salvation in any large Indian city, a My dirrrty Kolkata feet!BaristMy feet after a good scruba coffee house, where I proceeded to order a cookies and cream iced coffee and a blueberry muffin and settled down to read, shielded from the noise and the dirt. When I got back to my hotel I was horrified by the sight of my feet, so much so that I had to take the included before and after photos to show what seven hours of walking through Kolkata will do!

The ending of an unexpected love affair
Well it’s finally time to say goodbye to India and despite a few sense of humour failures and frustrations, I am really going to miss this country. It was the one place I never originally intended visiting, the one place I have spent the longest and, in many ways, have been most surprised to enjoy.

Train kidsThere are so many beautiful and fascinating places, from the deserts of Rajasthan, the beaches of Goa to the hills and snow of Himachal Pradesh. I’m going to miss the noise, the sounds of the mosques, the chai sellers with their long drawn out wails of Chaaaiii on the trains at 5am, people yelling “Hello, Madam” everywhere I go and telling me for the thousandth time that I look Indian. Note, they don’t think I’m Indian, just that I look it! The music from the lilting classical sounds of the sitar to the full bodied catchy Bollywood film soundtracks. The food, masala dosas, chickpea curries, pani puri, thik aloo, fat butter naan and Old Monk rum. The colours on everything from the bangles, the saris, the decorated trucks with their HORN PLEASE signs of the back, the pimped up rickshaws with boom boxes in the back and the piles of puja powder in the markets. The endless amusements and frustrations, the triumph when you finally figure out the train system, how to ship home a parcel sewn up in white cloth with red wax sealing on the seams, or finally get a rickshaw wallah to take you on the meter. Streets of VaranasiThe people who, when they’re not trying to rip you off, can be lovely and entertaining and nearly always want to chat, find out where you’re from, your job, marriage status and why on earth you are travelling alone! And the smells which range from everything to the sewer stench of shit of the railtracks at dawn, to sandalwood incense smouldering in the temples. It’s a crazy country full of more contrasts than I have ever seen before in my life, whether it’s the makeshift tent slums in front of huge new apartment blocks or street kids begging for money outside expensive restaurants where the middle class spend their evenings; the religions that permeate every aspect of life and the Sadhus, holy Hindu men with their long beards and yellow outfits who come up to perform a puja and bless you, right before charging you 100 rupees for the privilege. This is the only place I’ve ever been where you will find monkeys Monks in Sarnathrunning along the electricity wires over the train station, buffaloes by the bathing ghats, and cows dominating the rights of way on the roads and where you are equally likely to find human shit as cow shit on the sides of the pavement. A country where on the same street you can get run over by a car, a motorbike, a tuk-tuk, a rickshaw, a cow, a herd of buffalos, a crazy goat, a bus, a truck, a tram, or simply a guy walking along carrying a fourteen foot column of steel on his head.  A place where you can find Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddists and Christians all living in the same cities, albeit not always peacefully, where mosques , churches and temples stand only streets apart and where the symbol of a country that is 82% Hindu (four outward-looking lions) is actually the figurehead from a Buddist stupa.

Goats in McLeod GanjWell, providing India doesn’t have one more bug in the bag for me tomorrow morning, I have managed to survive four months, and the last one with barely anything to drink. Although I’m sad to be leaving, I’m looking forward to being able to show my legs again in public without feeling like a prostitute and hopefully I’m going to a country where looking out of the train window of an early morning doesn’t involve watching a whole community plopping out turds along the rails. There are some things I will miss dearly about India, but that is not one of them! Namaste!

the India effect

Before I left on this trip, after four and a half years of living in London and working for L’Oréal, I had definitely begun to enjoy a certain quality of lifestyle: eating in smart restaurants, staying in five star hotels and drinking expensive cocktails in swanky bars. Now backpacking, and on a budget, it’s amazing how much my expectations have changed. These days I get excited if my guest house bathroom is tiled, if the sheets actually look clean enough to sleep on, rather than in my sleeping bag liner, and if I actually get given my own towel and a bar of soap I am over the moon!

This was brought home to me quite vividly today. Having decided to take a final stroll along the ghats before my afternoon train to Kolkata, I popped into a calm little terrace restaurant called the Lotus Lounge for lunch. I ordered a walnut and mushroom salad, intrigued by the promise of lettuce which is something that never seems to be on the menus in India Halfway through eating the salad, which was delicious, I came across a tiny translucent maggot-like bug tucked away under a piece of lettuce. I picked it up on the prong of my fork, deposited it onto the table, and continued munching away quite happily. It was only a few minutes later when I suddenly thought, maybe I should have stopped eating or complained. I shrugged and finished the salad. Clearly I have been in India far too long!

the monkey watch

My bathroom bothering monkeysAfter four months in India I am well used to the constant staring from Indian men, women, small children and the odd cow, all fine. Things have gone too far, however, when the monkeys start getting voyeuristic too. I arrived in Varanasi after a supremely leisurely train journey from Jhansi. We had an hour delay outside a tiny station half way through the morning. No problem, within ten minutes the chai men had come rushing over to the open carriage doors. Actually I think I’m developing a kind of Pavlovian response. Everytime I hear the long wail of “chaaaiiiii” my mouth starts to water and I have an urgent desire for a hot, spicy, sugary drink. Strange. We eventually got to Varanasi and I rang the guest house who dispatched someone to pick me up and bring me over in a rickshaw, now this is service. My room is on the top, the 6th floor. I hauled my ever-increasing rucksack up the flights of steep steps and collapsed onto the bed, then decided to go and take a shower. As my window overlooked the ghats from very high up I’d opened the curtains to let the sun in. So out I walk from the bathroom, naked, and still slightly wet, to see a rather large monkey sat outside my window regarding me with some interest. I was rather startled and then rather embarrassed to be caught in the buff by a monkey. Hindu Graffiti on the ghatsI hurriedly drew the curtains and quickly got dressed. A few hours later after a huge lunch on the restaurant terrace and an interesting sunset boat ride along the Ganges I popped back to my room before dinner and walked into the bathroom. Now there is an alcove into the wall from the outside that has only a wire mesh in front of it, right above my toilet. In this alcove were huddled two female monkeys and a baby who didn’t react particularly well to being disturbed.  I was considering backing out and leaving them in peace when I remembered this was my bathroom in my room and I had paid to stay there and I was dammed if a couple of monkeys were going to take over. I proceeded to clap my hands loudly to scare them off. They sat there. I shouted. They continued to sit. I swore…loudly and still they didn’t budge. Oh well, nothing else for it. I dropped my trousers and plonked myself defiantly onto the toilet seat trying to ignore them. When I got up afterwards the two adults had their mouths hanging open in what I would swear was an expression of disgust. Sod ‘em, it’s my bloody bathroom!

Sunrise on the GangesVaranasi is probably the smelliest, dirtiest and most fascinating place I’ve been yet in India. Despite my monkey problems I slept well and got up at the ungodly hour of 5.30am for a morning boat ride (free from the guest house) along the ghats. The riverside disappeared into the early morning mist and pollution in the distance and as the sun began to rise over the horizon the smattering of clouds turned from grey to gold as dozens of boats rowed slowly up and down the length of the city. A few early morning bathers were already stripping down to the rather poesy cloth pants the men wear here, and dousing themselves in India’s dirtiest river. Thirty sewers pump raw waste into this river, it may be good for your karma in the next life but it’s not going to do your health any favours in this one! Coming back up the river we passed by the main burning ghat where everyday up to 200 people are cremated. Head shavingHuge piles of sandalwood lie stacked up around the area and grey flakes of ash and smoke fill the air. Bodies were being carried down from the streets on bamboo  stretchers covered in glittering cloths. The bodies are lifted out in their white shrouds and placed upon the piles of gathered wood, carefully weighed to determine the cost and the right amount to fully consume the body. The flames burn for three hours after which the ashed are gathered into urns and the relatives, dressed in white cloth, the men with shaven heads bar a small tuft of hair, scatter the remains into the river. It’s fascinating to watch but rather macabre.

Buffalo stares in VaranasiToday I’ve spent most of the day just wandering up and down the length of the ghats, sitting and people watching. Well I say people watching, there are also goats, buffalo, cows, dogs, cats, monkeys, hawks, pigeons and the odd ferret running around. The whole length of the city is like a bizarre mix between a religious site, a open farmyard, a bazaar and a riverside promenade. There are groups of boys playing cricket, huddles of men bent absorbed over a game of cards, bathers in the river, women washing clothes while their half naked kids run around the steps, Boats on the Gangesbuffalos being herded down to graze the rubbish strewn grass, fishermen, holy Hindu men with their long beards and orange robes gazing thoughtfully over the river, jewellery sellers, head shavers, boot polishers, boatmen, flute sellers, tourists, locals, firewood carriers, beggars and loiterers. You could sit and watch the whole spectrum of Indian life go by for hours.

before sunrise

The Magic of the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal before sunsetI feel as if I’ve had India overload in the past three days, both in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly, but definitely more of the good. Emily, Melissa and I had a winding overnight bus ride down from the cold hills of McLeod Ganj down to Delhi where we arrived somewhere in the middle of North Delhi at about 7.30am and had to get a very overpriced taxi down to the station in the south. Here we squeezed into a crowded second class carriage for the three hour journey down to Agra where I was finally going to see the jewel in the Indian tourism scene, the Taj Mahal. Agra is definitely not the dump that people make it out to be, really it isn’t that bad. By 1pm we were sitting pretty in a rooftop cafe voraciously eating lunch with the Taj Mahal peaking up in the background. That evening while a still poorly Melissa was taking a nap, Emily and I caught a rickshaw around to the far side of the river where there was a wonderful panoramic view of the Taj and her flanking red sandstone mosques reflected in the low lying river. The sun was setting further upstream and there was just us,a few other people and the buffalo strolling along. Really beautiful.
Taj Mahal before sunsetThe next morning the three of us were up in the cold quiet before dawn and by 7am were entering the East gate of the site. I really expected to be slightly disappointed by the Taj Mahal, you see so many photos, pictures, statues of it in India, it is so hyped and there is also a 750 rupee entrance fee which is a bit of a stinger. Neither Melissa or I were brave enough to try and pretend to be Indian to avoid that one. Taj just after dawnI needn’t have worried, the building is incredible, especially at sunrise where, reflected in the watercourse running through the gardens it has an ethereal fairytale like quality with the misty sky behind and the white-grey marble looking almost unreal against the backdrop. You enter through an impressive set of huge red sandstone gates and there is a mosque and mirror image dark red building on either side of the Taj to complete the monument. The Taj herself was built in the 17th century as a monument of love for the wife of the emperor’s wife who died in childbirth. It took 20,000 people 15 years to build and the result is incredible. Even the flanking buildings with their Arabic engravings, towering archways and white domes are spectacular buildings in their own right. Wandering around the base as a huge red sTaj Mahal engravingsun began to rise over the horizon the white marble began to change colour from a milky grey, to cream, shades of pink and then white against a pale blue sky. Walking up onto the platform the mausoleum towers above you, the arches decorated with flowers and tendrils set with semi precious stones, swirling lines of Arabic script run around the entrances in black and the four minarets strain slightly outwards into the sky. Inside are the tombs of the queen and her husband, buried slightly to one side behind a delicate marble lattice running around the interior. We spent over two hours walking around before heading back through the gardens taking one last look and the marble domes between the trees before finally going to have breakfast!

Monkeys on the roof, OrchhaMinor Transport Traumas
After a frustrating half hour in the world’s slowest moving queues and being told there were no reserved seats left to Jhansi we managed to get 2nd class tickets and catch a midday train south. Physically unable to fit into the 2nd class carriage which was literally overflowing we decided to camp in the inter-carriage area of the sleeper compartments sitting on our rucksacks by the door which actually proved to be fairly comfortable. An hour later the conductor came through and upon seeing our tickets demanded rather crossly that we moved. I pointed out that it wasn’t possible to fit into the other carriage so we were staying here and suggested we pay the increase to a sleeper ticket and stay where we were. “No, move, move!” He yelled crossly and stomped off. We stayed put and when he returned he completely ignored us so that was that. Fifteen mintues before we arrived another conductor appeared and I put on my most English school teacher accent to inform him that due to the overcrowded status of the train we were having to sit here instead of in the correct carriage and how much further was it to Jhansi? “15 minutes” he mumbled and then left! We got to Jhansi and somehow managed to squeeze three of us and all our luggage into a tiny rickshaw to travel across town to the bus station. The girls were heading five hours onto Khajuraho and myself half an hour to Orchha. There were no more buses to their town so they went off in search of money and a plan so I said goodbye and went off to find a bus.

The entire bus station of Jhansi decided to conspire against me. Street food stall in OrchhaI found the bus only to be told I couldn’t get on, despite the fact there was clearly space and it drove off without me. Fuming I stomped off to find another and was directed back and forth around the bus station until, seeing I was about to explode, a kind man came to my assistance. We found the bus saying Orchha but the driver denied her was going there saying I had to take a rickshaw. So my companion managed to find me a shared tempo (a large rickshaw) instead for 20 rupees. Now this isn’t a huge vehicle and I am not joking when I say we managed to fit inside, the driver, my rucksack, two large bags of rice and twelve other people. To say the hour journey was a little squashed is an understatement but it did finally get me to Orchha where I found a guetshouse, was too tired to even haggle the price and collapsed in front of the TV and went to sleep.

Orchha CenotaphsOrchha, the “Hiden Place”
Today, however, has been wonderful. Orchha is a lovely little laid back town squeezed inbetween a number of beautiful and imposing palaces, temples and cenotaphs from the rule of the Bundelas in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had some gorgeous wheat porridge and chai in a roadside cafe before spending the day wandering around the labyrinth like passageways and staircases of the palaces. Each archway and window gives spectacular views out across the green countryside with spires breaking the horizon in every direction. Orchha viewsDown by the river a series of huge incredible cenotaphs, built for the dead kings, lined up along the river bank, noisy green parrots were flying around the spires and I spotted a large weasel running furtively through the undergrowth. As I walked along the banks of the cleanest river in India, the Betwa, a family of huge vultures was watching me from the tops of the spires. I had fried potato patties with chilli and chickpea curry by the roadside for lunch and the owner of this internet cafe has just brought me a glass of chai. It’s days like this, that it is impossible not to love this country and the nearer my departure date gets, the more and more sorry I am to be leaving.