Cruising the Komodo Islands – the Good, the Bad and the Utterly Unforgettable

A stellar boat trip through this UNESCO heritage listed Komodo National Park is an experience none of us will forget in a hurry.

These are a few snippets of our life at sea…

We fought hard to secure a private charter, sacrificing the space and comfort of a larger boat, for the priceless luxury of dictating the where, how and what of our trip. I’m sure I speak for all 6 of us when I say it was a brilliant compromise. We loved our little boat, we had a ball together and we lucked out with a brilliant father + son team who seemed to know just what we needed at the right time. The nature of the Komodo National Park is resplendent, in parts. As long as we were away from the crowds and the rubbish-strewn beaches of the most popular islands, we loved this archipelago.

Far too many people and not enough conservation work being done. On one overnight anchor spot, we were even approached by a guy paddling on a kayak selling pearl necklaces and souvenirs. It totally cracked us up! Yet luckily, the national park covers an area (both land and water) of 1,800 square kilometres. Finding a corner of heaven, a ridiculously beautiful uninhabited island, and peace and quiet, is superbly easy.

The worst part of the trip was watching what is supposed to be a majestic dragon, the largest lizard on our planet, trying to crawl over an abundance of rubbish on the beach of Komodo Island. The best? Everything else. The fun, the snorkelling, the coral reefs, the hikes, the myriad of colourful fish, the sun and even the rain. The beauty, out here, is staggering…as is man’s encroachment on nature. The ying and yang of our planet, all here in one unforgettable place.

What made this trip all the more special, above all else, was that it was shared with good friends. Thank you to Jonas, Ellen, Arjen, Liliya and especially Chris, my love, for making this a most memorable birthday.

xxx

Settling in aboard the Amalia

Settling in aboard the Amalia

Our favourite cruising spot

Liliya and I swiftly found our favourite cruising spot

Docking on Rinca Island

Docking on Rinca Island

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The mighty Komodo Dragon!

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Rinca Island is home to about 2,900, but spotting them in the wild at this time of year (mating season) is very difficult. But there are always a couple who hang around the ranger station, no doubt fed to keep them from disappearing in the bushes

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Cloudy morning…perfect for a hike

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The views from the peak of Rinca are gorgeous

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Chris loving his dragon!

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Back on our boat, everyone finds their fave spot

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On board entertainment…balancing on one foot in rough seas

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Ellen & Jonas…probably contemplating how to turn their Land Rover ‘Foxy’ into an amphibious vehicle!

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Arjen and Liliya chillaxing

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A shipwright by trade, my Chris is as at home on a boat as he is on 2 wheels…or 4

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Our floating laundry

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Playing rock, paper, scissors for the last piece of fried banana. It became a recurring theme (both the bananas and the game) :)))

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Gorgeous sunset alongside mangroves chock-full of flying foxes

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The Komodo Dragon chase continues

The Komodo Dragon chase continues

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My picture-perfect beach dragon on Komodo Island

 

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The brutal reality of the beach on Komodo Island. Littered with plastic.

 

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Still, an incredible creature to encounter

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That’ll be our dinner!

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Back on the sea…my favourite part

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After a difficult snorkel on Manta Point, we spot this idyllic little paradise. So off we went…

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Sunset spotting

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Our “totally cool jungle off-road” adventure in Sumatra

This was never meant to be a gargantuan off-roading adventure. This was meant to be a shortcut. With the added bonus of a change of scenery, perhaps, but a simple shortcut nonetheless.

Leaving our friends heading for Banda Aceh and the lovely island of Weh, Chris and I decided that we were indeed in desperate need of a change of scenery and, even more importantly, some cooler temps. Google insisted there was no road across the volcanic Barisan Mountains which traverse western Sumatra, but rumours told us otherwise. Some evil motorbike overlander even went as far as to write ‘totally cool jungle off-road’ on one of the maps we came across, and the legendary tales of this elusive road, linking Blangkejeren to the east and Babahrot to the west, started to take momentum.

By the time we turned off westbound in Blangkejeren, we’d surmised the road was ‘quite good’ in fact, about 135km in length and had parts which ‘may or may not be slippery when wet’.

This shall now go down in my travel history as the understatement of the flamin’ century.

Just follow the red line....she'll be right...

Just follow the red line….she’ll be right…

I read a BBC article yesterday, about the making of a psychopath. About how difficult it is to profile them because they are so adept at appearing charming, and normal, and friendly. Until they turn evil.

Well…this road we took was the epitome psychopath. The first 50kms out of Blangkejeren were simply stunning. We rode through a pine forest, saw autumn colours, admired buffalo cooling off in lakes. We were so happy and awestruck we completely let our guards down. But then again, evil hardly ever comes with a warning.

1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (12) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (16) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (3) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (4) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (9) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (7)

The gravelly bits started innocently enough. Just a few hundred metres here and there at first, certainly nothing to worry about. Until the road started to get steeper and steeper, and the gravel looser and looser. As you can imagine, an utterly charming motorbiking mix.

3) steep starts

2) gravel starts SumatraI hate loose gravel at the best of times (ie. when the road is flat) but riding on it at very steep angles takes 10 years off my life per 100 metres, on average.

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It’s a pity that photos can’t quite portray the angle of a road. At least, not whilst you take them lying down.

As usual, I trailed behind Chris. I find this to be the safest way for me to ride on dirt roads, as while he’s busy working out the best route, all I do is follow in his wake. I then only make adjustments if I see him wavering. What I hadn’t counted on, was his bike stalling on the steepest part of an insanely gravelly pass. The scene played as if by slow motion. I saw Chris desperately trying to hold his bike upright and stop it from sliding backwards. His brakes just couldn’t hold the weight, at that angle, on such slippery rock. The moment he gently laid his bike to the side, I had nowhere else to go. Well….except horizontal, of course.

As I laid off the accelerator to prevent myself crashing into Chris, Pixie stalled too. My brakes? Bloody useless. I then did the most idiotic thing ever. As Pixie started to slide and tilt on the downhill slope (gravity’s a bitch), I should have simply hurled myself on the uphill side and let the bike go. But no. That would have been way too smart. Instead, I geniously decided to pit my left leg against the gravity-assisted slide of a 280kg heavy bike, thinking I’d have the strength to tilt Pixie the other (and much safer) way. Yes, I’m also still laughing about that.

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I heard the ‘pop’ in my knee almost as soon as I said to myself ‘this may not be your brightest moment yet’. The agony was excruciating. I screamed into my helmet and was overcome by nausea, which is never a good sign.

In hindsight, it wasn’t a big fall at all. It was just an incredibly unlucky one. The big fall was yet to come.

A half hour rest and recoup in a shaded spot gave me the chance to catch my breath, confirm nothing was broken and conclude that I’d probably stretched or snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee. As soon as I could move my toes and at least put some weight on my leg, I instinctively knew it was a ligament issue. It’s been more than 20 years since I snapped a ligament in my right knee, but the pain is unmistakably unique and unfortunately familiar. Bugger. As I strapped my knee, Chris and I made plans on how best to continue. All the while, locals wearing flip-flops and riding shitty little scooters rode past us. Normally they’d be yelling ‘HELLOOOO MISTEEERRRRR’, stop for a selfie and to bum a smoke, but the road was too steep for them to stop. So they kept on trudging on, mostly walking alongside their scooters while revving at full throttle.

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“Let’s do what we did in Georgia” Chris eventually said “You walk and I ride the bikes on the steep parts. Think you can ride the straights?”

“One legged? No worries!” was my reply. And that’s what we did next. He took one bike up, ran down, and took the second. And I walked. In the heat, on a steep gravel road, with a banged up knee. Funnily enough, the thought of simply turning around and going back to Blangkejeren never entered our mind. Although if we knew that this was just the first of 6 gravel-ridden mountain passes over a stretch of 10 kilometres – and not even the steepest one at that – we may have.

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The second fall happened so fast I can barely recount it. I know I was riding in deep gravel on a straight, and that the descent literally came out of nowhere. I think I panicked and hit the brakes, which is what did me in. This time, however, I was smart enough to tuck my legs up and simply flew (literally) in whichever direction momentum dictated. The fall was again not particularly hard…had it not been for the pointy boulders on which I landed. ‘That’s gonna hurt tomorrow’ I thought.

Three days later. Yep, still hurts. It's one of 5 bruises on my legs!

Three days later. Yep, still hurts. It’s one of 5 bruises on my legs!

I remember standing up and looking at the road. This time, I had been riding in front because Chris wanted to keep an eye on me. My fall had caused him to stop and stall, and he smartly laid down his bike to prevent it from sliding anywhere. By this stage, and because I’d been in deep religious contact with the gravel, we’d figured out that the gravel was granite. About the most slippery rock of all.

Anywho, I saw a motorbike box just lying there, in the middle of the ‘road’, thinking ‘that’s a weird place for a box to be, I wonder who lost it?’

That would be me.

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Half an hour and a ratchet strap later, Pixie was ready to go again. Up and down two more mountain passes before a threatening storm started brewing.

I saw the hut just a millisecond before I heard the sound of a very small waterfall. The perfect emergency campsite. We set up home inside – a place we believed to be a praying hut due to the abundance of prayer mats  – and decided we’d had enough for the day.

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The obligatory photo op with passing locals soon followed. They didn’t seem to mind that we’d taken over the hut (we are still not sure how ‘religious’ the locals are up here) but they actually only stopped to eat and chat and didn’t take a moment to pray at sunset, so we now assumed they’re quite relaxed.

Out of 1,000 things I wanted to do at this very moment, posing for a photo was not among them - although I think I bluffed well

Out of 1,000 things I wanted to do at this very moment, posing for a photo was not among them – – although I think I bluffed well

The night was one we’ll probably never forget. As the heavens opened up and the most incredible thunderstorm erupted, I bundled myself in my sleeping bag, whilst Chris settled in for the night in our camping chair. We didn’t put up a tent because we didn’t think it to be the safest place to be, to be honest. We knew passing motorists would inevitably stop, and Chris wanted to be only semi-asleep in case of any eventualities. Our minds are not yet set on locals in this region of Sumatra. Something makes me feel uneasy and I still don’t know what it is, but I’m certainly aware of this anxiousness so always err on the side of caution.

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As darkness fell and the drowsiness effects of my painkillers took hold, the hut glowed and shook with a particularly massive lightning bolt . It was so damn eerie, and for the next few hours, I jolted awake every few minutes. Partly because of the thunder, but mostly with a heart-stopping feeling of falling into a void. It happens whenever I take a bad fall on the bike. It’s as if the body replays it over and over again in my sleep. It’s one of the most disturbing feelings I’ve ever had.

It’s called hypnic jerk, this jolting yourself awake just as you’re about to fall asleep, and it’s said to be exacerbated by anxiety. I often experience it after a hard day on the bike, and on this particular night, it would plague me for 10 hours straight. Half way through the seemingly endless night I dreamt a tiger leapt into the hut and attacked Chris, and just as I woke up from the nightmare, a colossal lightning bolt struck and I nearly carked it on the spot. Then I noticed the familiar glow of a cigarette towards the general direction of where Chris was sitting. It was too pitch black to see anything else, but I figured if Chris was really fighting a tiger he couldn’t be holding a cigarette. Although knowing him, he probably would.

What I’ll remember most from this night, however, were the ear-piercing sounds of the storm and jungle around us. Every time lightning struck, a nearby tribe of monkeys would go off their heads, screeching and carrying on. During the few quiet-monkey-minutes, the frogs and crickets would take over. It was a deafening madness.

The first light of day, and rays of sunshine, were blissfully welcomed.

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After a heart-jumping cup of coffee and liberal application of Dencorub (I pretty much used it as a body moisturiser) we set off for our day’s adventure.

We immediately came across a termite-ridden tree that didn’t survive the storm, and provided a sorely needed (NOT!) chance to get the day started with a stint of gardening. Because what could be more enjoyable – at this stage – than spending an hour clearing a path through half-rotten trees?

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We continued at a snail pace. Up and down, over and out. Me hobbling the steep parts and riding the straights, and Chris picking up the slack whenever I felt uneasy. For 7 hours straight. The walking did grant me incredible opportunities to soak up the stunning scenery, so there’s the fabled silver lining for ya.

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The moment I cast my eyes on the freshly laid tarmac I was dumbfounded. I literally just looked at it like I’d never seen asphalt before. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Just as we were contemplating finding a place to pitch a tent for another night, the possibility of sleeping in a bed and having a shower in one of the coastal towns emerged as a literal light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t have a photo of my face when I first spotted asphalt, but this sums it up quite well…

surprise dogOver the following 20 minutes, we would cover more ground than in the previous 7 hours. As the road turned steep I nearly laughed to myself – and the road – thinking ‘you can get as steep as you want mother f****, as long as you’re asphalted I’m the queen of the road!” I can get quite cocky on asphalt. I probably rode faster than I should have, considering my muscles were starting to relax and the cramps were setting in. The rains came again, they cooled us off, and we kept on riding. For the first time since I can remember, we rode past sunset, eager to get to the coast and leave this road behind.

IMG_0994 12) Indian oceam at last Sumatra (2) 12) Indian oceam at last Sumatra (7)

We’re now going to take a few days to rest so that I can lick my wounds, recoup, and milk for sympathy. Then we’ll be heading for Lake Toba. Google tells us the road from the west coast of Sumatra to Southeast Asia’s largest lake is in good nick and fully asphalted, but the last time I believed anything anyone said about a road in Sumatra…I ended up soaking up the rays and listening to waves of the Indian ocean crashing right outside my hotel room.

Oh…wait…

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Best Guide to Southern Laos Highlights (no, really!)

I’ve been meaning to blog this guide for months (March 2016 update – make that a year), ever since I compiled it for a fellow overlanding couple who was following on our tyre-tracks back in 2015! Considering the fact I’ve shared it at least half a dozen times in the past few months, I thought it worthwhile to now post it here, hoping it may benefit anyone overlanding – or indeed holidaying – in this gorgeous part of Laos.

I’m always quite eager to share my tips on southern Laos. After 18-months in Southeast Asia, and with the gift of hindsight, I fervently rate this as my favorite corner of all in this region. Ironically enough, I distinctly remember thinking – at the time we visited in January 2015- that Laos was the most ‘touristy’ region we’d come across in a while. But, of course, all in travel is relative. We’d just spent two months crossing remote regions of China, and 6 months prior to that zig-zagging our way through the Stans. Compared to them, Laos was touristy. Compared to what we experienced afterwards – Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia – it most certainly was not!

1. southern laosSo why only  southern Laos?

The answer is quite a simple one: it’s the one ‘half’ of the country I loved most and – more importantly for a guide – the one which people know the least. Don’t get me wrong, we had an amazing time in northern Laos! We made some gorgeous new friends, discovered some unexpected treasures (like Nong Kiaw) and relished the first hint of the popular backpack route known as the Banana Pancake Trail. Yes….northern Laos is where I first devoured the Nutella and banana pancake! We very much enjoyed popular hubs like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and the Plain of Jars, but these are destinations which anyone who is headed for Laos knows all too well.

Northern Laos has a well-established tourist infrastructure, is (relatively) bustling with tourists and everything is good and dandy. You don;t need a guide on that from me.

That’s why I want to write about the south. Because the wilderness, remoteness and relative peace and quiet south of the capital, Vientiane, is something to behold. Because there are few buses, fewer guesthouses and infinitely fewer people. Because the best way to see it all is by private vehicle (your own or rented from Vientiane), because it’s a camper’s haven (you know, in winter!) and here nature is centre stage. Not night markets, and temples, and pancakes (however great they all are).

For reasons unbeknownst even to me…I wrote this guide backwards to the way we travelled it and, most likely, the way you will travel it too! 🙂

From the tip of the southern end, all the way to Vientiane (and just beyond), here are my favourite highlights of southern Laos.

For your travelling pleasure…

4 Thousand Islands 

A stunning archipelago on the southern reaches of the Mekong River, Laos’ 4 Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) are a haven of tranquillity and nature. A place where Laotian-time slows down to infinite degrees, if that is even possible. There are three main inhabited islands where visitors head to, one of which is renowned as a bit of a party town, with much tubing, alcohol-consuming and debauchery after dark. Everywhere else, life is simple, tropical and very enchanting. 

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We based ourselves in Don Khong which is the only island attached to mainland by bridge. We contemplated leaving the bikes behind to stay on one of the islands, but in the end, decided to visit them on day trips instead, as transport by boat is easy to arrange, relaxing and cheap as chips. We stayed in a guesthouse, but if you’re an overlander you can head to the southern end of the restaurant/hotel strips (very short strip) where you’ll find a huge open field where I am sure you can park & stay overnight without any bother at all.

You’ll find lots of restaurant ‘shacks’ along the waterfront at Don Khong, the best we discovered is the second last (from the southern end). They make amazing Mok Pa (fish amok in Cambodia), which is the local dish of fish cooked in coconut milk & spices. Super yum!

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From here we took a day trip to Don Det which was USD6 pp by long-tail boat (about an hour there & hour back). Don Det is the most famous island and bit of a party place at night, which means it is sleepy and quiet during the day.  Everything in DD is set around the boat pier so the moment you walk away from there along the road (there is only one) you are in very quiet countryside. Take a walk for couple of hours, grab lunch/ice cream back at pier and take a boat back. From 9am to 3pm. It’s a gorgeous day-trip to take. Just about every guesthouse on the water runs the same boat trips. Staying just one night will also give you a chance to enjoy stunning sundowners, but I’d recommend walking away from the pier to find accommodation. The last few guesthouses in the village looked absolutely divine!!

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Bolaven Plateau

Fertile and relatively unpopulated, the Bolaven Plateau is Laos’ coffee growing plantation, revered for its (only slight) elevation and myriad of waterfalls. This is still UXO territoty, made almost entirely uninhabitable during the Vietnam War thanks to the obscene cluster bombing from the US. Read all about Laos and it’s dirty, evil little secret.  Strategically placed just inches away from Vietnam, the area is slowly being cleared of unexploded bombs, and farmers are busy planting coffee and fruits.

If you drive north from the 4 Thousand Islands you’ll come across Pakse, a particularly uninspiring town, but a great food & refuelling station, ideal for stocking up the camper with supplies, before a  loop trip to the Bolaven Plateau, the coffee plantation area of Lao.

5. Bolaven plateau laos

Now, the loop is ‘nice’, I’d even say it’s ‘beautiful’, but I would not say it is a must-see, not all of it anyway. if you’re on a tight visa/holiday schedule, then this is the part I would personally recommend you skip. BUT, on this loop, only 80kms from Pakse, is where you’ll find Tad Lo and it’s amazing waterfalls. We loved this village so much, we ended up intentionally stranded here for a whole week. As you do 🙂

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Behind the falls there is an upmarket resort (Tadlo Lodge) home to two elephants. At 4m every day, they go down to the river for a swim and a wash. Yes, there are tourists there, but it so beautiful to see them playing in the rapids (the elephants, not the tourists) and so close to you. I despise these creatures being used for tourist rides, but at least here they enjoy a peaceful bathtime every afternoon. The manager of the Lodge is American, and he can be seen frequently intercating with teh ellies and hgging them. My optimistic side hopes it’s not just for our benefit.

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Thakhek Loop

A gorgeous round trip of a few hundred kms, the Thakhek Loop takes in the best sites of roads 12 and 13, brimming with bright orange dirt roads with the occasional spurts of tarmac. No doubt, in a few years, this whole route will be tarmacked, so my recomendation is to get here before that happens. Caves, waterfalls and submerged valleys are the highlights. Gorgeous guesthouses and eateries are splattered along the route. 

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Thakhek is the popular base town from where people rent scooters to do the famous Thakhek Loop. You can skip the town (although it’s good for food shopping) but definitely do not miss this loop. It’s the best part of southern Lao.

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On the loop road, do stop at the Sabaidee Guesthouse in a village called Tha Lang. the owner is crazy fun and the food in the restaurant is AMAZEBALLS!!! Especially if you’ve been in Southeast Asia a while and the sight of a bowl of sticky rice has the ability to send you into a murderous rage in 2 seconds flat.

9. sabaidee guesthouse thakek laos

Konglor Cave

Arguably the best highlight of the whole country (as rated by moi) Konglor Cave is truly a spectacular sight. Her sheer size is breathtaking. A karst lime carved cave that is 8 km long and anywhere between 25 and 50 m wide. It’s only accessible by motorized canoe, on a ride that includes time on-land to inspect rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites. This is the one highlight of Southern Laos no one should miss.

The cave is set within a National Park (costs a couple of bucks to enter) and from here you can take a longtail boat ride through the  underground cave. Stay a bit on the other side and the head back. 2-3 hours for the whole lot BUT outside the cave (on the return, opposite car park) you can swim, sunbake & picnic the whole day on the river’s edge. The boat trip costs about USD 15 – plus $3 cave entry fee. A boat can take 4 pax, so visitors often team up at the entrance, to share costs. Mind you, we ran into 4 people the whole day we were there (love low season!)

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Here we stayed at the Spring River Resort which has the most idyllic, quiet setting away from all the villages, right on the river. If you can’t find a spot to park overnight on the river’s edge, I reckon these guys will let you park here for a couple of bucks. GREAT food and incredibly peaceful spot!!

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Vientiane

Great base for a couple of days but absolutely nowhere to park/camp near town, there are no hotels with gardens or anything like that. Great food & massages to be had here!!

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BTW, dysentery is quite strife up in Laos so do be careful with salads/ice/water etc. It’s a water borne bacteria. Starts with diarrhea and basically doesn’t end until you poop blood, panic, go to hospital and get 3 doses of antibiotics. Talking from experience, here. It’s hideous and can kill if untreated so please be aware and be careful. The treatment we got in Laos was the same as our family doctor would give us at home (I double checked) so trust them that they have the rights meds. Note: this is not a highlight.

2 hour drive north of Vientiane – Nirvana Lodge (next door to Blue Lagoon)

Have a few days to spare? Bypass Vientiane and head north to Nirvana, where you’ll meet Christoph, a gorgeous Frenchman who has a stunning lodge by the river, and rescues animals. At the moment he has an adorable little black bear, who’s just divine. (NB update March 2016: Just checked latest photos and oh my lord tthat bear is huuuge!! 🙂 )

This spot ended up being our favourite for R&R. My Chris was recovering from amoeabic dysentery so we ended up chilling here for 2 weeks. Heaven.

If you want a place for a couple of nights to just completely chillax, read, etc this is the place!!

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You may understand now, why we rate Laos as our fave country in Southeast Asia. So far.

We’re off to Indonesia in a few days and hoping we’ll finally get to experience some more of that gorgeousness we found in sothern laos.

Go see it. You won’t regret it.

Scout’s honour.

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Visit Hong Kong: A Captivating City Where it Costs More to Bury the Dead than House the Living

I’m under no illusion that my travel experiences, in some of the world’s most popular destinations, have a lot to do with the time of year in which I visited. This is why I was stoked a few weeks ago, when the stars aligned just right for us to take a side trip to visit friends in Hong Kong, so we could renew our Malay visa. Not only were both Chris and I free of work commitments, but one of my best buddies happened to be home (she’s been living in Honkers for 10 years) AND, lo and behold, temps were hovering around the 15 degree Celsius mark. To two overheated overlanders who’d been coping with excessive temps and humidity for 18 months now…this trifecta just sounded too good to be true.

You see, I have been to Hong Kong a few times before and my most vivid memories were of sweating buckets just standing in the shade, and having difficulty breathing due to the all the incessant smog. I was never a huge fan of the city, yet I’d only ever visited in summer and knew that my opinion was tainted by the timing of my visits.
So off we went for a week of wintery city-scape shenanigans and, perhaps, a change of heart.

We stayed in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, a gorgeous oasis only 20 minutes away by ferry from Central

We stayed in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, a gorgeous oasis only 20 minutes away by ferry from Central

Commuting into the city center is a relaxing affair

Commuting into the city center is a relaxing affair

Except I don’t own nearly enough clothing to cope with winter temps so had to borrow half my girlfriend’s wardrobe!

OK, this happened to be fake snow but you get the point. It was a tad chilly...

OK, this happened to be fake snow but you get the point. It was a tad chilly…

A concrete jungle, shocking climate, horrendous pollution, too many people, good food. That’s pretty much how I’ve always seen Hong Kong, in a nutshell.

Yet as it happens, Hong Kong in winter is an absolute treat and granted me such a different perspective on the city, I can hardly believe it. Among the scattered rains and heavy cloud cover were moments of pure, clear bliss. Blue skies, lofty verdant peaks, a stunning harbour and incredibly enticing islands. This wasn’t the Hong Kong I remembered at all.

In all the times I visited, I had never managed to go up to The Peak, the fog was always so ubiquitous that, to be honest, I don’t even think I ever saw the top of the hill on Hong Kong Island.

The view from the Peak is breathtaking

The view from the Peak is breathtaking

Everywhere you look...nature!

Everywhere you look…nature!

As for the crowds, they too were eerily missing, but I have a sneaking suspicion this has much to do with the fact that by now, we have spent a lot of time in some of the most populated cities in SE Asia.
Hong Kong crowded?
Not compared to Bangkok it ain’t!

Seriously, we dealt with bigger crowds at the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, the week before Christmas, than we ever encountered in Hong Kong over the course of a week.
Hong Kong (7)

Hong Kong (9)

Hong Kong (10)

Hong Kong (14)

Made Up of over 260 islands, 170-odd of which are totally uninhabited, Hong Kong is an archipelago like no other. Boasting the highest concentration of skyscrapers of any city in the world – twice as many as New York in fact – this metropolis which started off as a nondescript fishing village, was literally built upwards ever since the British landed in 1841 and claimed it as their own. Unlike all other major Asian cities, foreign presence lies at the very heart of the city’s essence. Without European expats, there simply would be no Hong Kong, a fact that is quite palpable. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of expats in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur, but never did we feel they were part and parcel of those cities but merely spectators stopping in for a while. In Hong Kong, there are Westerners who were born there and feel as much part of the local population as anybody else, and that’s quite unique.

The perfect 'souvenir'!

The perfect ‘souvenir’!

What may surprise many is the fact that three-quarters of Hong Kong is made up of natural wilderness, with the city boasting dozens of reserves, parks, deserted beaches and outstanding island coastline only accessible by boat. Within just 20 minutes of the most densely populated suburb on earth (Mongkok, where the Ladies’ Markets is), you could be hiking in pristine forests. Something, by the way, which you’d only ever want to do in winter!
Hong Kong (16)

Hong Kong (8)

Hong Kong (15)

We take advantage of a rainy day to barricade ourselves in the Honk Kong Museum of History, a very interesting and humongous complex which retells the story of the city from prehistoric times, right up to the present day. It tells a somewhat unbiased tale of Chinese immersion, of the complete disintegration of its indigenous population by the Han Chinese Dynasty, about the toxic Opium Wars with Great Britain led primarily by the fact that although Europeans went nuts over local products like silk and tea, the desire to reciprocate trade was non-existent.
“There was nothing made in Europe which the Chinese coveted”
That made me smirk.

That was until the Brits inundated the trading port with opium they were growing in India, single-handedly causing a huge drug addiction problem within the local populace.

When Emperor Chia Ch’ing literally banned the import of opium, the Brits responded with war. Imagine that? They literally forced the country to accept their drug, of which they had a seemingly endless supply.
The Opium Wars ended with luck on the British side and the rest, as they say, is history. When the Crown took over Hong Kong in 1841, the city was nothing more than a hamlet of about 20 villages. By the time it was returned to China, on 30 June 1997, it had become one of the world’s most pivotal trading cities. English is still the official language (along with Cantonese) and, from what we gather, locals feel about as Chinese as we do.
Hong Kong (1)

Hong Kong (2)

Our enjoyment of Honkers had most to do with the fact that we had the chance to spend time with some dear friends. When that happens you could be just about anywhere and have an amazing time.
Hong Kong (8)

Hong Kong (3)

This is my gorgeous friend, Caterina. We met at the smoker’s wall at university 24 years ago and have been soul-buddies ever since. Obviously, our penchant for pink bonds us…

Still, the city has plenty of appeal regardless of whether or not you have a local buddy here or not. And considering the fact that neither Chris nor I are fans of big cities, it turned out to be the best city-scape we’ve had in years.

So now I’ll leave you with some interesting facts you may not know about this vibrant, cosmopolitan city. If you’re ever in the mood for a little getaway and wish to explore a unique and enticing place, give Honkers a go. Bet you won’t regret it
Just make sure it’s in the months between November and April 😉

1. HK is one of the world’s richest cities and boasts more Rolls Royce per capita than any other. The Peninsula Hotel placed an order in for 14 Phantoms, the largest order of Rollies ever made.
The Peninsula Hong Kong

2. It also boasts the most expensive real estate on earth, with tiny one bedroom flats in Tsim Sha Tsui (the southern tip of Kowloon Island) selling for USD 3 mill. That’s a lot of dumplings.

Tsim Sha Tsui at twilight

Tsim Sha Tsui at twilight

3. Unsurprisingly, HK also boasts the highest concentration of eateries in the world and is home to the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant you’ll ever find anywhere. PS We ate there!

The famous pork & shrimp dumplings at Din Tai Fung, in Causeway Bay. Yuuuuum!!

The famous pork & shrimp dumplings at Din Tai Fung, in Causeway Bay. Yuuuuum!!

4. Locals are just crazy for designer gear, and HG boasts the most expensive designer retail shopping area in the world, having overtaken New York in 2012.

5. More than 42 million people visit Hong Kong every year, spending more than USD 34 BILLION dollars. This doesn’t include mainland Chinese, of which there are 58 million. That’s right, more than all other nationalities combined.

Wan Chai Markets

Wan Chai Markets

6. The Global Geopark of China, a UNESCO-listed reserve which covers 1,253 acres, is less than an hour’s drive out of the city.

7. Camping is free for all, in all public parks, beaches and uninhabited islands, unless specifically stated otherwise. We only encountered one ‘no camping’ sign during our week’s exploration. If you had a kayak, you’d have literally thousands of idyllic coves and secluded beaches to explore at length.

8. In 2012, a Hong Kong tycoon offered USD65 million to any man who was able to ‘turn’ his lesbian daughter, woo her, and marry her. He failed and she married her girlfriend instead. You go girl!

9. Hong Kong has the largest fleet of ferries in the world (connecting not just Kowloon to Hong Kong Island but also many cities on mainland China), as well as the longest bi-cable aerial car and one of the most efficient public transport systems, with an on-time rate of 99%.
Hong Kong (5)

10. Due to the insane cost of housing, many of the city’s poor live in wire ‘cages’ which can be rented for USD200 a year. It’s believed that over 50,000 locals live like this. Read more here.

Dramatic inequality, HK's least enticing aspect...

Dramatic inequality, HK’s least enticing aspect…

11. An 800m-long covered escalator helps commuters get from Mid-Levels to Central. It’s the longest escalator in the world and it switches directions at peak hour. Down in the morning and up in the afternoon.

Cat and I riding up the Hong Kong Island hill towards SoHo!

Cat and I riding up the Hong Kong Island hill towards SoHo!

12. Traditional burial plots can sell for upwards of USD80,000 and spaces are painfully amiss. It’s believed more than 50,000 people’s remains are stored in funeral homes for years, whilst their families wait in queue for a plot. Considering people here are cremated at death and need only a small plot for an urn, a running local joke is that in Hong Kong it costs more to bury the dead than house the living.
And that’s saying something.

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2015 – The Travel Year (that wasn’t really)

I woke up this morning realising that we covered more kilometres during our 8-week traverse of China, in 2014, than during the last 12 months in Southeast Asia. The thought made me smile.

Travel. It’s bloody brilliant no matter how far you get or how fast you move.

Yep, we’re still here. Still in Malaysia, about to celebrate our 6th month in the country. It’s ridiculous, I know. Surely we should be on the other side of the planet by now, you say? Yes, maybe…but what’s the rush?
Australia is just around the corner, even though, in all honesty, it has been just around the corner for about 18 months now. Friends have suggested that perhaps we are subconsciously delaying our arrival in Oz because it will mark the ‘end of our journey’, but trust us when I tell you: we ain’t all that deep. Not really.

What many see as our ‘journey’ we see as a simple phase in our travelling life. Nothing will end once we get to Australia, it will only begin. Maybe we’ll stay a while, maybe we’ll continue on. Perhaps we’ll park up the bikes and get a camper or – if my lurve has his way – we’ll find a rickety old boat, do it up and sail to Alaska.
That’s his latest idea.
Last time he came up with ‘idea’ of his I ended up riding 37,000kms on a motorbike, so forgive me for being a little nervous.

Anyway, where were we…
2015. What a year. A year when even the negatives turned out to be incredible positives.
So at the risk of sounding all too-hippy for my liking, a year for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m grateful at the chance of starting the New Year with new friends in one of the most ridiculously low-key capitals in the world, Vientiane

Jonas, Ellen, Chris and I waiting for the NYE fireworks (that never came) in Vientiane,Llaos

Jonas, Ellen, Chris and I waiting for the NYE fireworks (that never came) in Vientiane,Llaos

I’m grateful that Chris’ parents joined us for his birthday and we had the chance to experience new lands together

Hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I’m grateful for my bout of tendinitis that put a tremendous ‘brake’ on our travels this year. We’ve had the priceless chance to ‘live’ in these foreign countries, rather than just visit them

Rockin' that sling, Bangkok

Rockin’ that sling, Bangkok

I’m grateful that 2015 brought us together with my mum and my best girlies. I’m grateful for the laughs and the love

My fave ladies!

My fave ladies!

I’m grateful for the discovery of house & pet sitting, it’s opened up a whole new travel world to us, one which is sustainable long-term

Julian, Doug & Gus (three other little demons missing), the best furry new friends we made this year

Julian, Doug & Gus (three other little demons missing), the best furry new friends we made this year

I’m grateful for the chance to discover new places, explore new cultures and learn more about this wonderful world of ours. And, above all else, I’m so very grateful for my health and that of Chris, so that we may continue to explore this insanely addictive, complex, dumbfounding and interesting planet of ours.

Island hopping off Sihannoukville, Cambodia

Island hopping off Sihannoukville, Cambodia

And finally, I’m grateful to all the amazing people we’ve met this year, who have enrichened our experiences and made our journey – in life, not just on the bikes – so much more fulfilling.
Thank you to all our dearest family and friends, for keeping us connected to our ‘homes’, and making us feel supported and loved. That’s the most appreciated gift of all.

I wish you all an amazing start to 2016. May the silver linings that will inevitably come, be the sweetest of all.
‘Till soon
Laura x

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Cameron Highlands: The HIGHlight of Malaysia. Apparently…

‘You’ll LOOOOOVE the guesthouse’ he said

‘It’s completely surrounded by nature’ he said.

Left: our guesthouse. Right: the neighbours

Left: our guesthouse. Right: the neighbours

This is like that time he told me: ‘Oh, you’ve never ridden a big motorbike before? Only a scooter? Aaahhh…don’t worry…it’s same same!’

And then I am the one with trust issues…

Chris was last in the Cameron Highlands 18 years ago and although that’s not that long ago – you know, if you’re a Galapagos Giant Tortoise – it’s apparently an eternity if you’re one of Malaysia’s most up and coming tourist destination.

This sux. Our guesthouse, the only one in our price range with a lock-up garden for bike parking, is completely surrounded by construction sites. Wherever you look, someone is building something. Something quite ugly, I must say.

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They just keep building higher and higher…

Even crappy construction sites hide their treasures!

Even crappy construction sites hide their treasures!

The Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s most famous hill-station. Named after some British ‘Sir’, who apparently ‘discovered it’ in the late 1800s (how does one just ‘discover’ a hill, may I ask?), the Cameron Highlands were developed as a tourist destination in the 1930s, primarily to cater for the Brits who were no doubt looking for a reprieve from the brain-melting heat and humidity of the capital. The tablelands are blanketed by farms, nowadays, with tea and strawberry taking front honours. Bizarrely enough, afternoon tea with home-made scones and strawberry jam is a totally Malaysian thing to do, up here.

Along with farms came farmers, and a hefty number of construction workers given the task to build towns. The ethnic mix up here is awesome, as it is in the rest of Malaysia. I love how, after so many decades, everything is completely fused into one, amalgamous ‘nationality’. Locals have Indian rotis for breakfast, washed down with Chinese tea and complemented by Thai coconut boiled sweets. To them, this constitutes an ‘authentic Malay breakfast’.

For quite a few weeks, we also become Malay, until we discover the local’s obsession with palm oil and frying, so we’re forced to bring that little culinary indulgence to a halt. Damn cholesterol. I knew getting bloodwork done ‘for the heck of it’ was a really bad idea…

Anywho…

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In Malaysia…this is what you get for $1.50. Noice…

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Cameron Highlands: everywhere you look…strawberries!

A phenomenal British influence in this region is the incredible number of old Land Rovers that litter every street and every second driveway of Tanah Rata, the main town.

Chris is in Landy heaven. matilda would have loved it up here…

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Miraculously, we’ve found a construction site which operates 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Right next door. WTF? Where I come from, construction workers work at snail speed, take 15 coffee breaks a day and heaven forbid they work past 5 pm or on weekends.

Australia, you gotta stop paying by the hour. Seriously. This is ridiculous.

PPPPPRRRRRR BANG BANG BANG PPPPRRRR BANG BANG KAPOOOOW!!!

It’s 6 am, pouring bucket loads, and these guys are already friggin’ drilling and hammering.

Weary-eyed, I drag myself out of bed and fill the kettle. Yawn.

I look outside our window and can’t believe  this is the day we booked out Cameron Highlands day trip adventure. It’s not often we join one of those all-too-dreaded organized tours, but this time we really, really couldn’t be bothered taking the bikes out and exploring on our own. We’ve been in Tanah Rata one week already and both Pixie and Puck seemed to have grown roots cementing them to the ground of our hostel’s garden. The fact that they are completely surrounded by a wild garden bed (that’s lazy speak for can’t be arsed to keep the garden looking nice so we’ll just call it wild and that’ll be that) I fear those roots may have grown, quite literally.

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Because I know us oh-so-well, I thought a fixed date with a tour company would be incentive enough to actually get out and explore. For the grand bargain price of $10 for the whole day, per person, you really can’t go wrong.

Tanah Rata is not the most inspirational place I’ve ever seen, to be brutally honest. I am told it’s much more natural ‘over there, beyond the hills’, but now I just don’t believe anything anybody tells me. Re-read the beginning of the post in case you’re wondering ‘why?’

Three hours later, as we’re taking a relaxing stroll under the still-timid sun, through the largest tea plantation in Malaysia, my faith is (somewhat) restored. Yes, it is quite pretty, although ‘wilderness’ and ‘agriculture’ are two quite separate things, IMHO.

Still, sure as hell beats the construction sites.

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It’s lovely to get out of the bustle (and pollution!) of the town and we spend a nice day admiring the views, visiting the tea factory (which was surprisingly interesting) and even stopping by a cute butterfly farm. Alright, so it’s not a blow-your-socks-off riveting kind of excursion, but we’d still recommend it (the half day tour).

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do…

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Back at our hostel we indulge in that one aspect of travel which makes every place, just that little better. We spend time with new friends, share meals, endless discussions about world problems (sometimes, we even find solutions), play cards and drink red wine. Ahhhh….that’s nice.

The highlight of the month would have to be the fact that I’m wearing my jacket and scarf for the first time this year. The temps hover between 12 and 18 degrees and OH MY LORD how nice is that after all the sweltering, humid heat we’ve been enduring??!!

Leather jacket??! You bet!

Leather jacket??! You bet!

It seems that everyone here has the same idea. Weeeeell, it’s not all that nice, here. But at least it’s cool! Everyone needs a reprieve from the tropical heat. Chinese construction companies could even (almost) set up a rubbish dumping ground next door, and we’d probably all still hang around, for those few evening hours, in particular, when you even suffer a case of the nipple freeze. Oh, how I missed those…

L x

 

 

 

 

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Hipmunk City Love Project: Could South Brisbane Be Our Ideal Australian Base?

As we’re inching closer to Australia, the hot topic around our camp stove these days is: where would we want to settle? As much as I love Sydney, I know I could never live there again. After I last visited for a month, in 2011, I needed two weeks just to recover from the prices and the traffic. And if I need peace, quiet, open spaces and fresh air, then you can just about quadruple that need for Chris. If he could decide where we’d live, he’d pick a place like William Creek: an Outback outpost along the Oodnadatta Track. If we were to move there today, we’d boost the town’s population by 25%. Needless to say, William Creek shouldn’t be holding its breath in anticipation of a colossal population boom.

“So where would you live, then?” He asked.

“Probably Brisbane” I said.

“Why Brisbane?”

“Because it’s like Sydney, minus the nervous breakdown.”

Brisbane City River

He wasn’t convinced. So I then did what I do best: I presented Brisbane as a holiday destination. I told him all the things I knew about the ‘new and improved’ BrisVegas.

Want to know what’s so good about this neck of the woods? Here’s some cool stuff I discovered!

It’s a culture hub – who knew?

When the Bolshoi Ballet returned to Australia after a 20-year absence, in 2013, it chose Brisbane as the only city in which to perform. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (the GOMA) – right in the heart of South Brisbane – played host to Pablo Picasso’s private collection in 2008, the first time it was ever shown outside of Europe. This gallery also hosted the largest collection of Andy Warhol’s works ever held in Australia. Whilst Sydney and Melbourne have always been cited as the most cultural cities in Oz, it seems that Brisbane has been the quiet, chilled-out achiever…

Look how arty-farty Brisbane’s become!

Look how arty-farty Brisbane’s become!

Want shopping and nature? You got it!

Just across the Victoria Bridge from the GOMA is the Queen Street Mall, the most comprehensive commercial hub in town, and just a few blocks south-east are the City Botanic Gardens, a gorgeous natural reserve right in the heart of the city. If Chris wants to go Outback, then I can send him to Charleville, which is only 680 km west of Brisbane. There’s a top-notch observatory there, the roads are nothing more than red-dust dirt tracks and there’s an obscene number of camels.

On second thoughts, best not tell him. He may want us to move there instead.

South Bank Parklands

South Bank Parklands

The downside? Well…it’s not exactly cheap…

Hostel prices are usually my fail-safe indicator of just how liveable a city could be for us. Hotels in Brisbane start from just AUD 21 a night (a great backpackers in South Brisbane), which is just a few bucks more than what we’re paying here in Malaysia. But Australia works unlike most other countries, so although even we could afford to sleep in a hostel there for a few months, living in Brisbane may be an issue. Sure we can sleep, but can we afford to do anything else?

The latest news headlines are all about the massive downfall of the great Aussie dollar – making RIGHT NOW an ideal time to vacation there.

And perhaps that’s just what we should do…

 

**Full Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Hipmunk to bring you a collection of fun and informative destination guides. Yes, I’m being paid to write these blogs, but do note that all opinions, recommendations and ideas are mine and mine alone — for your virtual travelling pleasure.**

 

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A Taste of the Expat Life in Penang, Malaysia

The housekeeper walks in, takes one quick glance at the living room, declares the whole apartment ‘sparkly clean’ and proceeds to unpack two bags full of groceries. Apparently, we’re cooking curry today…and who’d dare argue with that?

Sanra is not the kind of lady with whom anyone would argue. Mostly because to ‘argue’ would mean you’d have to get a word in and there’s not much chance of that happening. In our glorious Penang high-rise apartment, where we are dog-sitting for the very first time, I’ve finally met my match. Our lovely Malay-Indian housekeeper has a talking speed of roughly a gazillion words a minute and, although she keeps apologizing profusely for not being able to speak English well, has the fluency and coherence of a politician. No, not Bush or Abbott…I mean a really good one. But I still can’t keep up.

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1) Penang

It’s day 10 of our house-sitting gig and I’m panicked at the thought that in only 6 more days we’ll have to leave. Leave Doug, leave the fridge, the oven, the washing machine, the L-shaped lounge, the balcony overlooking the sea, the 7 swimming pools, fully-equipped gym and the glorious gourmet deli downstairs which sells every imaginable treat under the sun – at really reasonable prices. Sob.

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My fave pool…the ‘beach corner’

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This one’s not too shabby either, I guess…

View to the east

View to the east

Our daily sunsets...double sigh...

Our daily sunsets…double sigh…

Anyway, back to our housekeeper: arguably the most energetic and talkative woman I’ve ever met. Doug is basically the dog version of her, only in Pug form. How nature managed to pack so much enthusiasm, character and annoyance into a creature roughly the size, shape and colour of a loaf of unsliced wholemeal-bread, I’ll never know.

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Life with Doug is a constant compromise. Five minutes’ work and an hour’s play. According to him, this constitutes fairness…

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…but play is pretty much me, allowing him, to nibble on my ear lobe

Both Doug and Sanra have filled our days here in Penang with laughter, enlightenment, entertainment and love. Lots of love. Mostly from Doug, who enjoys nothing more than to wake us up with a tongue-bath at 5 am. If you’ve never had this kind of alarm clock, let me tell you, you don’t know what you’re missing. Sanra is a little more reserved when it comes to showing affection (thank fark for that) but she’s equally gorgeous. Her wisdomnesses come fast and thick too. I nearly choked on my coffee when she proudly stated to be ‘not racist at all’, and that she’d work for anyone….’as long as they’re not Chinese, Malay or Indian’. Or that time she told us we are SO lucky not to have children, because children grow up to marry some rude, arrogant girl called Anika who will only want to spend weekends with her parents. Sanra has two grown sons, from what I know, and going out on a crazy limb, I’m guessing one of them is married to a girl called Anika. I haven’t asked, lest I open a can of worms I’d have no way of containing.

But behind the extroverted and very colourful façade, Sanra actually hides quite a painful past. Forced to marry a man she did not love, and after suffering two decades of domestic abuse, she finally found the courage to leave him, only to have her family and community basically chastise her for divorcing. She’s born and bred Malay but it seems that the Indian roots run very deep, even here. Sanra keeps referring to ‘her community’ and now I know she means the Indian community in Malaysia. She says she doesn’t have many friends, she spends endless days cleaning houses of well-to-do expats, and that she actually loves to ‘break bread with new friends.’ So today, we’re cooking chicken curry together.

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Whoever came up with this idea for us to delve into the world of dog & house sitting, is a real genius.

Oh…hang on…

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch...

Doug waiting for lunch. Doug is always waiting for lunch…

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Slightly better than cooking on a petrol-fueled camping stove. Slightly.

Our 'backyard'

Our ‘backyard’

The star of the past fortnight, however, has really been Doug.

This little squirt of a rascal has managed to dig a spot so deep in our hearts, that we’re both completely besotted and dreading Monday morning, when we’ll have to say goodbye. I love everything about this little guy: the way he snores when he sleeps on his back, the different ways he barks when he wants attention, or a treat or a w.a.l.k. (with Doug, one soon learns not to throw that word around too easily) and the way he compulsively licks any exposed bit of human skin with which he comes in contact. It cracks me up that to sit, he doesn’t lower the front of his body, but allows his butt to slide backwards instead. He has an inexplicable obsession with carrots and is attached to us like Velcro.

He’s an absolute hoot to take for a walk and is known and loved by all fellow dog-walking neighbours. Of course he is. Doug’s a stud muffin…

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Although, there seems to be a very defined split between large dog-owners and small dog-owners, which is something I’ve never understood. My favourite neighbourhood pooch is Spot, a pointer-like stray dog whom everyone else keeps at a distance, due to his large size. No-one else seems to have ascertained that Spot is just one big, huge marshmallow. I love him to bits and he, in return, loves Doug to bits. Every morning he waits for us down at the beach for our daily swim. Which entails me hanging on tight to Doug (turns out Pugs swim as if they had concrete shoes on) and splashing about the waves with Spot.

Life these days is just wonderful.

Rub-a-dub-Pug

The X-rated photoshoot…

As if that’s not enough, we’ve met some really interesting people while out with Doug and it has opened a whole new side of Malaysia to us which we would never have experienced otherwise.

Alright, not really, it’s all about his adorable face…

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Doug’s humans work for the Australian Air Force and we are living in a humongous, deluxe seaside complex on the north-eastern tip of Penang Island. The complex is owned and was built by the Sultan of Brunei – and about 50% of the tenants here are foreign. The RAF has a base in Butterworth, which is over an hour’s drive away, but apparently there’s nowhere ‘half decent’ where the families could live, on the mainland. Instead, they commute to and fro this wonderful – and very secure – condominium village. We spent a night in Butterworth on our way to Penang a few weeks ago and I must say: I would commute too. Even for two hours.

We’ve met Germans, Spaniards, Norwegians, British and Chinese foreigners, as well as quite a few affluent Malay. Penang boasts the third-largest economy in Malaysia and even though we spent the first two weeks in Georgetown, the UNESCO listed historic capital of the island; it was evident that this corner of the country is an absolute melting pot of nationalities, which is a prime indication of Malaysia’s eclectic history, much of it colonial. The proficiency of English-speaking locals here is outstanding and so far we’ve found everyone we’ve come across to be extremely friendly.

But the high fences and over-abundance of security guards at our complex had me perplexed. If Penang is indeed doing great and everyone – of differing race and religion – is getting on so well….what’s with the Fort-Knox type security?

Just to take Doug for a walk I need to swipe a keycard a few times to exit the complex, although mind you I’m now walking along a seafront promenade which has security, and gates, at either end. You need to show a key-card when walking – or driving – in and out and I’m fairly certain that if you simply tried to scale the six-foot high fence at some random point, you may or may not be shot in the head by a sniper.

Well, as is usually the case, not all that glistens is gold. Or something like that.

Although the crime rate in Penang is still manageable, foreigners and cashed-up-locals are the prime targets for burglaries, which are said to have become violent in recent years. As one of Doug’s girlfriend’s owner told me, if you can afford a TV and computer at home, then you couldn’t possibly live in an independent home, unless you want to replace your valuables every few months.

It appears that the Malaysian government has introduced measures which blatantly favour Bumiputeras, or indigenous Malay, something which is not going down well with locals of Indian (like our Sanra) or Chinese origin, of which there are millions here. Tensions are high, conflicts sporadic, blah blah blah that’s pretty much the story of the world at the moment, isn’t it? Yet there are Chinese and Indian Malays whose families have been here for over a thousand years!

Although, when all is said and done, whatever crime rates Malaysia boasts, they are still an absolute fraction of what they are next door, in Thailand, and indeed in our own western countries. This place is safe, welcoming and infinitely eclectic. And we like it.

Amazing noddle dish? that'll be $1 thanks!

Amazing noddle dish? that’ll be $1 thanks!

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres

Penang is renowned for its hawker centres

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Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road...

Just one of many locals who stopped us on the road…

Gorgeous Georgetwon

Gorgeous Georgetown

Rightio, our curry is ready…gotta go.

Catch you guys from the Cameron Highlands!

Sans Doug 🙁

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Travel Etiquette: How NOT to Make Enemies and Offend People When Travelling

Contrary to what you may think, I’m not immune to the odd travel faux pas here and there, despite my many years of practice. My bouts of foot-in-mouth disease may have decreased in the last few years yet try as I may, I’ll inevitably – albeit only occasionally – find myself doing or saying all the wrong things unintentionally.

There have been times when I’ve forgotten to take my shoes off when entering a home in a country which demands it, finished everything served on my plate, reached out to shake hands with a local man when it was deemed highly inappropriate and even that one time in Tajikistan, when I mistook someone’s family gathering for a restaurant and sat down and ordered coffee and kebabs. True story. Luckily for me, my immense mortification at the realization of my stuff-up was enough to appease my gracious hosts; the latter even insisting we stay and share in the family celebrations.

That was a particularly delicious mistake, on my part 😉

Best 'blunder' I made all year!

Best ‘blunder’ I made all year!

Travelling to a new country is always an exciting prospect yet along with a suitcase full of comfy clothes, hiking boots and a sunny disposition, it’s wise to pack a healthy dose of cultural awareness as well. Problem is, there are SO many habits which we simply take for granted that it’s difficult to know what is deemed rude or offensive abroad. Yet although there is an abundance of very specific customs pertaining to certain places – like refraining from blowing your nose in public when in China (highly repulsive to them) or taking your shoes off when entering homes in any Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist countries – there are a few general tricks which you can adopt to ensure you don’t accidently offend anyone, while travelling.

Because although everyone is bound to come across as a dumb tourist at one time or another, and more often than not be courteously forgiven, wouldn’t it be great to actually surprise a local, in a far-off foreign country, with a little cultural mindfulness?

Take stunning photograph. Insert Philosophical travel quote.

Take stunning photograph. Insert Philosophical travel quote.

Here are just some of the things I attempt to do when travelling.

(Disclaimer: I don’t always succeed!)

  • Don’t ever criticize a country’s leader/government

No matter how many articles I’ve read that 90% of the population of country X hates its leader and criticizes him/her ad infinitum, I never EVER take it for granted that I can do the same. In some countries, criticizing the head of government can get one arrested and even executed, so keeping my tramp firmly shut on the topic not only helps me not offend, but also keeps me out of serious trouble. Besides, if there’s something that is quite international, it’s people’s annoyances at having their country/leader/laws criticized by outsiders.

  • Learn WHO is the head of state and what political issues are current

Chris and I once came across a local Kyrgyz farmer who asked Chris if Adolf Hitler was still leading Germany. Super cute when it comes from a 90-year-old goat herder living in the middle of nowhere…not so cute when it comes from a 26-year-old globetrotter.

It is really quite important to learn the name of the head of state of whichever country you wish to visit and if there are any current ‘hot’ issues of which you should be aware. Updated knowledge is always appreciated. Learning a bit of the country’s history is never a waste of time and will also help you discern which topics should never be brought in conversation. As an example, Cambodians and Ugandans do not like to talk about their somewhat recent genocides and even a mention will be met with stark disapproval. If you want to get a deeper understanding of certain historical events you’ll have to do so subtly, without asking 101 questions to the first local you come across.

  • Don’t talk politics or religion with locals (unless invited to do so)

Having said the above, do note that most of what I’ve learned about foreign countries, I’ve learnt from talking to locals. Politics, religion, historical or social issues; whatever the topic may be, I’ve enjoyed some incredibly interesting conversations with people abroad. The pivotal points are, however, that 1) I NEVER initiated the conversation and 2) I NEVER gave my opinion. You can indeed chat about sensitive subjects abroad, but you should wait until the topic is brought up by your host and then not divulge much of a personal opinion.

Which brings me to my next point…

  • Perfect your diplomatic skills

No matter how curious you think you are about a foreign country and culture, you’ll be surprised to learn just how curious others are about you and your home-country. Most especially if you happen to visit a country which is not in the top 30 most-visited on earth. I’ve been asked countless personal questions through the years, from ‘Why do you not have any children?’ to ‘What religion do you follow?’ ‘How can you be away from your family for so long?’ and even ‘What do you think of our country?’ Nowadays, my answers are standardised although I do edit them ever so slightly depending on where I am. What my answers are, always, is diplomatic.

I try to refrain from telling locals I don’t like their country (sometimes, white lies are  needed), never told anyone outside of the West that I have no religion affiliations (being ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ as such is rarely respected abroad) and I although I mostly answer “Because I can’t fit them in my motorcycle boxes” when asked about my lack of offspring, my most-oft answer is that “Oh we try but it has not happened yet”, especially in countries where child-bearing is so important. Telling a Nubian woman in a remote Sudanese village that I simply did not want children would have confused the heck out of her…so I told her it was obviously not god’s will. She did what anyone with a strong love of god and children would do: she gave me a sympathetic hug and then changed the subject. Bingo.

Perfecting your diplomatic skills will go a long way in ensuring you never offend or come across as critical of another’s culture.

  • Dress conservatively

Much like excessive alcohol consumption, I’ve yet to come across a country whose inhabitants get offended if you overdress. This is especially true for women. If you want to play it safe (and avoid hassles for yourself anyway) my suggestion is to always cover your shoulders and wear long pants/skirts when crossing a country’s border, or visiting a new country for the first time. No matter what you’ve read. My usual rule of thumb is to cover myself when entering a country and then simply sit back and watch how locals are dressed. Even in a popular tourist destination like Koh Lanta (Thailand), usually filled with sundress & hot-pants wearing foreigners, I noticed how local women were very well covered, most of them even wearing a head-scarf. I never went to the extent of wearing a scarf, as I know the country is not Muslim, yet I realized there was a high percentage of locals who were Muslim in that region, so I always wore a long skirt and T-shirt whenever I stepped out of our guesthouse. Follow this credo and you’ll never be accused of disrespecting the local culture.

Yes that is a toruist. yes, she's about to walk into a temple. Yes, she is only wearing a bikini. Photo courtesy of Travelfish

Yes that is a toruist. Yes, she’s about to walk into a temple. Yes, she is only wearing a bikini. Photo courtesy of Travelfish

  • Don’t break any local laws, no matter how ridiculous they seem to you

I’ve been in countries whose laws can be deemed to be utterly nonsensical…but I still don’t break them. This is despite the fact that many times even locals tell us their laws are not respected. Oh you can speed, the police will never stop you, go ahead and throw rubbish on the ground, no-one cares here. But the way I see it, not only is it not my place to challenge a country’s laws (if citizens want to revolt against a tyrannical government, for example, that’s for them to decide) but, perhaps more importantly, I’ve learnt through experience that leniency by a police force is hardly ever extended to foreign visitors. Everyone speeds in Italy, for example, yet the police are much more likely to stop a foreign plated vehicle, rather than a local one. Besides, if there’s ONE local you never want to piss off in a foreign country, it’s a local in uniform.

  • Don’t be a drunken, rude idiot

This is one of those internationally acceptable customs that ought to be taken quite seriously. I’ve yet to come across a single place where it’s acceptable to be a drunken moron in public. Really. Absolutely no cultural differences here, it is as abominable a behaviour abroad as it is back home. Even in countries renowned for their huge levels of alcohol consumption (think any ex-Soviet Union nations) is obnoxious, inebriated behaviour  deemed nice, either by locals or fellow travellers.

  • Be demure

Sometimes, one need not be necessarily drunk to be obnoxious to locals in a foreign country. Anywhere in the East, for example, where cultures are much more demure than you may be used to, you’ll notice that locals never talk too loud, laugh too hard or gesticulate wildly. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve failed at this one. I blame my Italian heritage. Laughing with an open mouth is considered very impolite in Japan, as is talking loudly in public or on your mobile phone.

Yet being reserved and modest can translate into many aspects of behaviour. In some parts of the world (like Europe, North America, Australia and Canada) a firm handshake is an admirable characteristic whilst in most Asian countries it is deemed exceedingly aggressive. Knowing the right greeting is also quite imperative, most especially if you’re a woman. Unlike what many believe, Muslim men can and do shake hands with non-Muslim women (this has happened to me quite a lot) however I was never the one to outstretch the hand first. If offered, I have never refused.

Travel etiquette personal space

“It’s OK…I’m Italian!”

The subject of personal space and touching also varies a great deal around the globe, yet generally speaking, I find the safest bet is to never touch anyone (on the arm, for example)  unless a) they are fellow Latinos (I know they won’t take offence) or b) they have become close friends. I’m naturally very touchy feely and sometimes I have to hold back, especially when it comes to cute little kids. The Italian in me wants to pinch cheeks and give bear hugs, yet the traveller in me keeps tabs on local custom. Touching a child on the head in any Muslim or Buddhist country is about as offensive as you can get, even though it is one of the most appropriate behaviours in my home country.

  • Hold back on the PDAs

I remember when Chris and I first reached Europe together back in 2010. We’d just spent a year and a half driving through the Middle East and for the first time ever, walking along a street in Bulgaria, we held hands. It was the first time we had that privilege in all the time we’d been together. The first time we shared a kiss in public. Many people will take this for granted, yet there are many, many countries all over the world where public displays of affection are frowned upon. And I’m not just talking about the Middle East. Even during our time together in Germany, for example, what soon became our normal way of showing affection to each other, was (very mildly) criticized. In other countries, it is simply considered unacceptable.

This is yet another case where the best way to ascertain how you should behave, is by observing locals’ behaviour. Do couples hold hands when walking? Do they sit on a park bench and smooch? If they do then go right ahead and behave as you’d normally do, although do note that sticking your tongue down your beloved’s throat in rather unsavoury no matter where you are. In countries like Dubai or Saudi Arabia, this kind of amorous display will get you lynched.

  • Mind your hand gestures

I have the sneaking suspicion that I have failed abysmally at this task more times than I care to remember. When it comes to hand-gestures, it’s like I never left Italy back when I was 12: the only sure-fire way to shut me up is to tie my hands behind my back!

Easy!

Easy!

Anyway, this one if fraught with endless danger because the list of hand-gestures which are offensive in some countries yet perfectly fine in others, is almost never-ending! By and large, however, keep in mind that the ‘OK sign’ is fine in Anglo-Saxon countries whilst it’s insanely rude in Greece, Spain and Brazil and totally evil in any Arab nation. The ‘thumbs up’ is also seen as obscene in the Arab world and rather rude in South American and quite a few African countries. Giving someone ‘the outstretched hand’ is not exactly polite in our countries, where it basically tells the speaker to shut up but in Greece, the moutza is a serious offence. This hand gesture is also not very favourable in Pakistan or Korea either…

4) Travel etiquette hand gestures

I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the wisest thing for me to do is to simply keep my hands to myself.

Now if I could only remember that when telling a story…

  • Keep your feet to yourself too

While you’re at it, you may want to remember that in many countries the soles of the feet are considered the dirtiest and most vulgar part of one’s body. Therefore, pointing them in any way or having them out in full view when sitting on the ground is a big no-no. The easy thing to remember here is that this custom is reserved by countries with considerable populations of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu followers.

  • Learn the right table manners

When I was a kid, I loved nothing more than slurping my minestrone and burping after a meal. Unfortunately, in an Italian household, this pretty much guaranteed a not-so-subtle backhander from my mother. Turns out I should have been born Japanese! In Japan this behaviour is a way of extending the compliments to the chef for a delectable meal!!

Much like hand gestures, table manners can vary quite a bit around the world and considering the fact you’re bound to eat out in public every day when travelling, it pays to really do some homework on this one, about the specific country you intend to visit. If you think all there is to know is that you should sit up straight and don’t put your elbows on the table, you may be in for a rude shock. Of all the ‘cultural set of manners’ I researched, this would have to be by far the most contrasting.

5) travel etiquette table manners

Where in countries like Italy, India and the US it’s deemed rude to leave food on a plate, in many others like China and Japan it‘s rude to clean up your bowl, as it hints to your host that he/she has not cooked enough. Playing with utensils, whether forks or chopsticks, is frowned upon in every country  (I fail at this many times) while asking for extra condiments which are not on the table (like salt and pepper) is considered rude in many countries and seen as a criticism of the cook’s skills. This last one is a particular sticking point in countries with tremendous food culture, like Italy and Argentina. Asking for parmesan cheese for a plate of seafood pasta in the former, or ketchup for a steak in the latter, is about as close to a gastronomic misdemeanour as one could get. Eat it as is or skip it!

  • Don’t be so quick in accepting gifts…or dishing out compliments

This is one of those cultural customs which always drive me nuts! In countries like China and Japan, as well as many Muslim nations, gifts of any kind are to be rejected three times before being graciously accepted. I’ve forgotten this many a time!

“Here, have a box of candy”

“Oh great, thank you!”

FAIL!

“Oh no you shouldn’t have, oh no please, you keep it…” and on and on until at least three strikes are recorded. Moreover, in many cultures, it is customary to give away an object which has been admired by a guest. Say, a piece of jewellery or an item of clothing for example. Compliment the wearer and, if you’re in Morocco, you are literally forcing them to take said item off and give it to you. Praise something in many Muslim countries or any with immensely hospitable people (like Russia or Iran) and don’t be surprised if it will be offered as a gift to you when you leave.

This is why it is even more imperative to never compliment someone on how cute their child is. Just in case…

6) travel etiquette gift giving

Having mentioned all this, I’d also like to stress that, when in Rome, I don’t always do as the Romans did. And it’s not always by mistake. Indeed, at times, I have very much gone against cultural norm in a country, if I deemed such norms to be immensely challenging to my own, personal moral code. We’ve travelled through countries where it’s perfectly acceptable to beat up your spouse, circumcise your child, stone your puppy to death or throw rubbish in the street. In these instances, I’ve preferred to refrain from following accepted convention, even if it meant offending a local. Yet I’ve never been verbally critical of any practice, no matter how hard I found it to keep my mouth shut. As stated before, my ‘job’ as a traveller is to observe, not to challenge a culture which is not my own.

Like everything else travel-related, it all comes down to common sense. It costs me absolutely nothing to be a bit more reserved, respectful and diplomatic when I travel. If anything, all these things help me be a better and more understanding human being. But I certainly do not blindly follow a foreign cultural practice if I think it may have the opposite effect.

Being respectful when travelling requires a very delicate balance of understanding and acceptance. I hope this post will help you, somewhat, in finding your own precious balance when travelling.

Laura x

NB. Planning a trip abroad soon? Here is a very good website I found and, although I did not click on all countries, I did check out a dozen or so and from what I can tell, it’s pretty spot on.

Hope it helps! 🙂

 

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Hipmunk City Love: How to Survive a Visit to Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Welcome to the Grand Palace

Welcome to the Grand Palace

The Grand Palace is, to Bangkok, what the Colosseum is to Rome: the epitome symbol of its ancient civilization. A visit is an absolute must, although  it could be chaotic, tiring and quite overwhelming, Crowds here are phenomenal, especially in high season, so if you wish to survive your visit, you may take heed of some invaluable insider tips.

The following hints were researched, tried and tested by yours truly. And if I can approach a visit here with military precision, in spite of my prominent go-with-the-flow attitude, so can you!

Know What You’re Seeing

The Grand Palace was the official residence of the Siamese Royal Family for 143 years. This colossal complex is where they were born, lived, were crowned and even buried. To locals, this place is as revered as they come, especially true when you consider that  the Emerald Buddha, the most worshipped religious relic in the entire country, is found here. It also helps to know that this 250-year-old statue is only 25 inches tall and sits in a protected case, on a very high pedestal. Much like the Mona Lisa in Paris, you may need binoculars to truly appreciate its contours.

Golden Pagoda, Grand Palace. B.I.G.

The B.I.G. Golden Pagoda

Use Public Transport

Bangkok’s insane traffic is enough to turn the most well-balanced individual into the Hulk, so fight the urge to jump in a taxi or tuk-tuk, and head to the Grand Palace by public transport instead. The easiest and most enjoyable transportation option is by BTS Skytrain to Saphan Taksin Station. From the station, follow signs to the nearby pier and take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to the Grand Palace – easy, cheap, enjoyable, and migraine-free.

Cruisin' down the Chao Phraya, beats getting stuck in traffic for 2 hours.True story.

Cruisin’ down the Chao Phraya, beats getting stuck in traffic for 2 hours.True story.

Visit at Lunchtime

Every guide written about the subject will urge you to get to the Grand Palace first thing in the morning, which, today, has resulted in ‘first thing in the morning’ being the busiest time of day. As most people will be on a whirlwind, organised day trip with a tour group, trust that there is another time of day which is blissfully quiet(er): lunchtime. Without fail, every guide will take his/her group to some overpriced restaurant for lunch, leaving cunning you to enjoy the Palace in peace and quiet – relatively speaking, of course.

Those threatening crowds? They kept the crowds at bay!

Those threatening crowds? They kept the crowds at bay!

Pick Low Season

Visiting Bangkok between May and August is usually thought to be madness, due to the oppressing heat, humidity and frequent rains. Yet it can actually be one of the best things you can do. Not only will you find great deals on central hotels in Bangkok, but you will experience the city, and all its attractions, with far fewer visitors. Besides, as long as you have a nice hotel to retreat to every afternoon, like the Woraburi Sukhumvit Hotel & Resort (hello rooftop pool!), you’ll find it easier to cope with sweltering hot days.

Now don’t go thinking you’ll have the Grand Palace all to yourself – that will never happen! But if you’re hoping for some breathing space, then this period will certainly grant you the beast chance.

Finally, don’t forget to put that camera down, every now and then. This is one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring places you’re likely to ever visit. Don’t miss seeing it with your heart and soul, as well as through the lens of your camera.

 

**Full Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Hipmunk to bring you a collection of fun and informative destination guides. Yes, I’m being paid to write these blogs, but do note that all opinions, recommendations, ideas and photos are mine and mine alone — for your virtual traveling pleasure

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