Monthly Archives: May 2008

all good things must come to an end

Sixty weeks, eleven countries, three subcontinents and one empty bank balance later and I’ve reached the final blog entry for this amazing trip (as I don’t plan to bore myself or anybody else with blogging my readjustment to reality)! How do I summarise these entire thirteen months of travel? It has been fascinating, wonderful, harrowing, illuminating, surprising and just far too much fun.

I began in Argentina trekking in the Andes, wine tasting, horse riding, dancing Tango in San Telmo, learning Spanish in Buenos Aires and visiting volcanoes. In Brazil I fished for piranhas, danced Samba in Salvador, learned to surf, gazed on incredible waterfalls, crawled through caves, went clubbing in Rio’s favelas and fell in love with Caipirinhas. In Sri Lanka I walked along the railway tracks, saw huge stone Buddhas, fought monkeys off my breakfast and brought my first Saree. Then it was onto Nepal where there was intricate architecture, stunning scenery and adventure overload; bathing with elephants, trekking in the Himalayas, white water rafting, rock climbing and one 160m high bungee jump that terrified me beyond belief. I spent the next four months falling in and out of love with India on a daily basis: from Bollywood dance routines, working on an HIV project, sunsets on camel rides and sunrises over the Ganges, ancient city palaces, crumbling forts, drinking chai with shop owners, talking to street kids, visiting Jain, Baha’i, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist temples and mosques and watching fireworks over Udaipur’s lake at New Year. Possibly the most wonderfully crazy, intense, contradictory, infuriating and enchanting place to travel in the world. After India I arrived into comparative calm and order in the easy bustle of Bangkok and hill tribes of Northern Thailand. A slow boat took me into the beauty and charm of Laos, tubing down the river, kayaking, discovery the tragedy and scars from the Secret War and doing nothing on the 4000 islands. In Vietnam there were terraces, rice wine drinking with ethnic minorities, limestone karsts, Viet Cong tunnels and the beautiful island of Phu Quoc. Cambodia was a furnace in April but nothing could diminish the splendour of the Angkor temples. Finally I went to Malaysia, a country with the sweetest people in South East Asia, where the beautiful Perhentian islands were a week of relaxing on balconies and scuba diving with sea horses, eels, turtles and rays.

I’ve been so lucky to meet so many wonderful and entertaining people on this trip – from countries as diverse as South Africa, Taiwan and Norway. I’ve met everyone from liquid dance teachers, to psychiatric nurses, band managers to martial arts enthusiasts, every age from 18 to 60. I’ve been adopted by Indian families, brought chai with rickshaw wallahs and been taught Nepalese by my trekking guide. What I love about travelling is how much you learn; about the places you visit, the cultures of the people you meet and about yourself. I’ve learnt that I love a good shouting match with tuk tuk drivers, that I cannot handle my rice wine, that photographs of the Vietnam War shocked me but not as much as the simple head shots of torture victims of the Khmer Rouge, that I hate backpackers with dreads & stripy trousers who walk around in bare feet trying to find themselves, that I can foil camera muggings in Vietnam, how to pull off leeches, that there is no such thing as full public transport in Asia, that I will never wipe my arse with my hand, that a sense of humour goes a long way, that nobody ever has change and that no matter where you are in the world it is always possible to find a good cup of Earl Grey Tea, if you look hard enough.

So I do I feel about going home? Split is the answer. I do miss England, my family, friends, the dog, proper English pubs, mature cheddar cheese and semi-skimmed milk. I’m looking forward to not constantly running out of clean underwear, to be able to drink the tap water, to unpack my rucksack, to walk down the street being totally ignored and to not have took check bathrooms for snakes, spiders, rates, cockroaches or monkeys before sitting down. And despite all that I am going to miss travelling more than I can express. I’ll miss arriving in new places where any time can be a Sunday afternoon of a Saturday night, where there is always something new to see or to do, someone new to meet or somewhere beautiful to do nothing at all. The longer you are away the more you realise travelling is never about one trip, one holiday or one sabbatical. It is not as much something you do as someone you are. I love my life at home and although this trip is at and end I know it’s not a question of if I will ever be off on my travels again… only when.

back in Bangkok

 Kek Lok Si temple!Bron and I spent a day in Georgetown on the island of Penang before going our separate ways. I’m sure there were lots of interesting things to do and see but I’m pretty much at sightseeing saturation at the moment so we simply walked around the historic district, strolled through Little India, shopped and snacked. The day we left we did get a bus out to the Kek Lok Si temple, an attractive if overly elabroate Buddhist monastry that stands stop a hill outside the town. There is a beautiful pagoda reaching up from the hill that was sadly shrouded in scaffolding when we arrived so we entertained ourselves with walking around the huge prayer halls of massive gold buddhas, ornate tiling, and decorated courtyards. Further proof that they have no understanding of the word kitsch in South East Asia!

mmmmmmm!Ah, feels good to be back in Bangkok. It’s always nice coming back to a city when you have an idea of how things work, how much they cost and how to get around. I arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday evening and dumped my stuff before heading up to Kao San Road to have a reunion with Mary, Mika and Rob who all arrived yesterday. Typically the evening got very messy, there was a Thai acoustic guitar duo playing very good covers from the Killers to the Beatles, two Spanish guys making balloon animals, I definitely recall a lot of buckets, dancing on tables, stealing a guitar from a busker on the street so I could play ‘Proud Mary’ and eventually passing out in Rob and Mika’s hotel room. Kao San road, cheesy and cliched, but fun! “Take me home, Kao San Road, to the place I belong…”

postcard from paradise

Model poses on our own little beach View from the beach Giant monitor lizards Palm trees in the morning

We are finally leaving the Perhentian islands after a week and I am really going to miss this place. I’ve been out diving most days, hanging around the dive shop chatting to the owner Jakub and looking at his amazing photos of sea horses and cuttlefish, lying on our balcony with the boys from next door, Steve and Ben, playing guitar in the evenings, drinking M&M milkshakes, swimming in the warm waters, wandering through the jungle to find our own private beaches, hanging out with guys who work here (one of whom Pappa, has kept the python they found in one of the chalets and is feeding it rats he catches behind the kitchen), eating French toast and drinking pots of Earl Grey tea. The diving has been really good fun and there is some fantastic coral around the reef, bamboo sharks who seem to permanently lie under the rocks doing nothing, colour-changing cuttlefish, playing with the tiny Nemo fish and coaxing them out of their sea anenomes, crazy coloured nudibranches, huge Jenkins whip rays and brightly patterned blue spotted sting rays, giant angel fish, batfish, schools of mean looking barracuda and grumpy looking giant moray eels. Is it any wonder I don’t want to leave!

gecko heads The wonderful milkshakes of Pulau Kecil the boys next door! View from the restaurant

under the sea

The beach on Redang for our surface stopOkay, I am actually on holiday now, there is no way I can call this week even slightly difficult, stressful or challenging. Then again, I’ve been on the move for 13 months and quite frankly I think I deserve a holiday before coming home.

Right now I am in the Perhentian islands with Bron, on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. Imagine a stretch of cobalt blue ocean with gently undulating waves. You are speeding across this stretch of water in a speed boat heading for two small islands almost interlocking into one another. They rise up to hills in the centre and are covered with dense, thick green jungle. Around the shores are small idyllic white beaches and rocky outcrops. As you round the corner there is a long beach ahead of you with pale creamy sand, a few brightly coloured parasols dotted along the length and a few locals and tourists playing volleyball. The sea morphs from dark blue to turquoise as you get closer to the shore. A few restaurants and wooden bars are dotted about the place with most of the simple wooden A-frames and bungalows set back in the bush and palm trees, large spotted geckos hanging out in the eaves and snap up the insects and huge monitor lizards sulk around in teh shadows. Waking up to go for a morning dive you can see the sun rising over Long Beach and shining through the palm fronds and in the afternoon you can walk five minutes through the jungle to see the sun set over the clear waters from Coral Beach. Jealous yet?

This place is lovely, relaxed, beautiful, laid back and easy. The Malay people generally are just the loveliest warmest people which makes such a difference after Vietnam and Cambodia where there is a reasonable amount of hassle and rip offs. No, the Malays are relaxed, helpful, friendly and all seem to have an excellent sense of humour. We’ve been here for three days and I’ve been on some fantastic dives, I’ve seen turtles, Bamboo sharks, Bat fish, Blue Ring octopus, Cuttlefish, Moray eels, seahorses, huge mangrove rays, angelfish, scorpion fish, Titan trigger fish, lionfish and barracuda to name but a few. I’m loving the diving, just the feeling of being under the water and looking up a bank of coral to see the sun shining from above the water through shoals of hundreds of tiny fish, looking down on tiny orange and black clownfish darting in and out of their anaenome homes or staring out into the blue and seeing crowds of hunting trevallis swimming by. I took a digital camera out for the first time and turns out underwater photography is a lot harder than it is on dry land but I’ve included some of my better efforts.

This afternoon I went down to a huge sunken boat called Sugar Wreck which was just like something from a Jules Verne novel. Huge baracle and clam encrusted sides towering above us with bamboo sharks hiding under the base, cuttlefish changing colour as they swam over the sea floor and we even came up into air pockets nine metres down under the wreck and had a quick chat! Bron has been entertaining herself and has gone off snorkelling in a secluded beach with one of the very lovely guys who works in our chalets. She said something about needing to go and improve her Malay language…

Coral baySadly as I came up from the Sugar Wreck dive I had to move away from the line as another group were going down. So I swam alongside their boat as ours was behind. The current here is really strong so I was staying close to the boat. Now if you dive off a boat you usually enter the water with a backward roll. You always check behind before you do this and usually the boat driver or the instructor (who should be the last one off the boat) also keep a look out. Unfortunately for me this didn’t happen and this guy just rolled back without checking and clunked me on the head with his air tank. Those things are big and heavy. By the time I reached my boat it was bleeding profusely and there was blood in my mask. Our dive master pulled me out whilst yelling at the other boat’s driver. None of them apologised which I thought was more than a little rude, they just sawm off for their dive. I am fine though, it throbbed a bit but otherwise I’m okay and the guys at the shop have covered it in antiseptic and antibiotic cream. Still I’m taking it easy for the rest of the day just in case. Luckily the afro hides the bump. Now if I can just go and find the monitor lizard that lives behind the kitchen…

Bron and Claire’s jungle day of fun

Bron and Claire playing Rambo in the jungle Bron and I bade farewell to the others and caught what has tho be the best, most comfortable public transport in the whole of SE Asia along wide, wonderfully smooth tarmac highways up to Jeratut where we had a scenic three hour boat ride along the fringes of Taman Negara National Park where we’d decided to stop for a day en route to the islands. As we only planned to spend one full day in the park we decided to get our money’s worth and have a jam packed jungle day of fun. After breakfast on the floating restaurants down on the river we caught a boat over to the entrance and set off through the jungle to the world’s longest canopy walk. It is a fantastic swaying bridge suspended in the canopy about 40 metres above the ground and the sections are 450m in total length, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie certainly and with fantastic views across the jungle canopy from the platforms. Canopy walkway in Taman NegaraTaman Negara is the world’s oldest rain forest which makes it roughly 130 million years old, give or take a millenia or two. Huge trees tower above you, giant ants scurry around the forest floor, the sounds of geckos and birds echo through the dense foliage and far away from prying eyes tigers and wild boar lurk about. Sadly we didn’t see a tiger but we did spot two wild pigs trotting through the entrance area as we were eating cookies outside the souvenir shop! After the canopy it was only a 2.6km walk to Ear cave. Somehow, due to the steep up and down paths riddled with tree roots, a torrential downpour, a prolonged photo stop by on the park’s largest trees and several slides it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the cave. Sunset over the rainforestBy this time we were absolutely filthy, covered in mud and thoroughly damp but with that wonderful dismissive-ness that comes from being dirty enough not to care. It was a rough and slippery scramble to get into the cave with our torches. We went in just far enough to see the colonies of cute furry bats clinging to the overhangs with tiny clawed feet and inhale the unmistakable stench of piles of guano! It was getting late so we made our way out and managed to get back to the village before dark. Bats in Ear CaveI must have picked up a few leeches on the way back as when I took off my trousers my feet and leg were covered in blood – nice! That evening after dinner we went on a night walk with a guided group. Sadly the six or so British 18-year old backpackers could not grasp the concept of walking and talking quietly to maximise the chances of spotting the wildlife. After the guide had asked them repeatedly to be quiet I asked them rather curtly to attempt to talk a little more quietly and the girl just rolled her eyes at me. Seriously, youngsters these days have absolutely no respect! We did see a green tree snake, a viper about a foot above my head, wood scorpions, huge furry spiders, massive stick insects and a beautiful flower called a one night stand which only blooms at night. It was 11pm by the time we made it back to our little dorm bungalow, muddy, damp, dishevelled but nicely jungled out!

bright lights in the big city

Malaysian Flag

I have reached the final country of my trip, Malaysia and am currently in Kuala Lumpur. I can barely believe that it has been 13 months since I took my first flight to Buenos Aires, last April a year seemed such a huge length of length of time and now all to soon it is drawing to an end. Still, I have some serious beach and jungle action left to go before I head home! I arrived at the hostel in KL on Monday afternoon to find that my brother had managed to arrive before me, having hopped through the islands of Thailand and Malaysia whilst I was happily pottering around the Mekong and Cambodia. I also had a mini reunion with Jill who I hung out with in Pune, and Bron who James and I travelled with in Laos who is back in Asia en route to Europe. I love travelling reunions while your away!

View down the river in the histroic district

Kuala Lumpur is a really interesting city, it seems far more quiet and civilised after cities like Saigon and Hanoi. The motorbike has all but vanished which has made road crossing a litle problematic. With your average throng of motorbikes it’s not a problem. You walk, they swerve – everyone is happy. In KL there are a lot of cars and huge traffic congestion but it all seems to travel fairly fast and cars don’t tend to swerve around you… The city is fairly compact, hot, humid with an electic mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese inhabitants. There are mosques, catholic churches, Indian restaurants, monorails, markets full of fake Gucci handbags, enormous shopping malls with Chanel, Topshop and M&Ss, rice porridge with ginger and chicken for lunch, everyone seems to speak English, there is a 7-Eleven on almost every street and the skyline is ringed with retro-looking skyscrapers. Towering above them all are the dizzying heights of the Petronas Twin Towers and the KL Tower, two of the world’s highest buildings.

Views from the KL TowerWe went up to the Petronas towers out first morning to get one of the free tickets for the skybridge that connects the two towers about 100 meters up. It is a little bit of an anti-climax, a big corridor stretching between two towers that are fairly impossible to see from within and beforehand you have to don a pair of very sexy 3D glasses to watch a publicity video on the wonders of Petronas, the oil giant that built the tower. It was far more entertaining walking around the park area and paddling pool behind the building and taking comedy photos of the towers from the base.

The KL towerYesterday evening a group of us went up to the observation gallery of the KL tower which stands on a hill in the centre of the city and that has really spectacular views after sunset as the sky darkens and the cityscape begins to illuminate below you. We zipped across to Chinatown for dinner and ended up in the Reggae bar which was huge amounts of fun between the hula hoops-on-fire show, the crazy dancing tourists, lady boy waitress, the amourous bar owner Robert, the two best games of pool I have ever played, the jugs of cocktails and playing pub golf with plastic balls and clubs. Even better, McDonalds was still open at 4am on the way home! Needless to say today has not been very productive.

The lift of the KL Tower

For more photos click here!