I’d rather be in Sagada

6 Dec

Our last stop off was Sagada, a little town up in the mountains north of Manila. The bus ride from Baguio took us along some dangerously windy roads on a bus that worryingly clanked every time we took a corner a bit too fast. It didn’t much settle my worries when I noticed a car that had recently come off the road and had come to a stop a few metres down in the U of the hairpin bend. No disasters came our way luckily, and the views along the way were just spectacular. Rice terraces, mountains, flowers and greenery.

After an increasingly alarming search for a hostel we realised that the whole of the Philippines descends on the mountain town at weekends, and most place were full. We secured a place for a couple of nights though, and set about booking ourselves onto the caving experience that we had heard so much about. So off to the tourist office across the road, where we were told that Sagada only has one ATM which may or may not be open the next day. Since we only had about £3 to our name, this was problematic. But we were reassured that we could go to Botoc otherwise.

The next day we began by searching for a hostel for the next couple of nights. We had seen a place on the bus on the way in, about a kilometre out of town, so we decided to walk over there. 1km later we came to the sign, which then pointed us on another 1km walk to the hostel itself. Which was full. But they had cute puppies I played with for a bit and then we turned back and found a different place not so far out from the town. Next job was to get a Jeepney to Bontoc, which was easy enough. We were pretty jealous when some other tourists got to sit on the roof when the inside got full. They later told us it wasn’t that great though, so maybe it wasn’t such a loss.

Bontoc has us worried for a while when the first ATM we went to refused to give me any money. Trys had no money left in his account, and by this time we couldn’t even pay for our lift back to Sagada with the money left. Luckily, the second bank proved more reliable, and we were back in business.

Day three in Sagada was the caving experience we had been waiting for. We met our guide, Lester, in the tourist office, and walked down to the nearby caves, stopping off to admire the hanging coffins on the way. The caving was amazing! We got to clamber through holes in the rocks, up and down rock faces, we waded through water, and there were loads of formations in the limestone for us to admire. I think Lester was fairly impressed with the speed with which we completed the circuit as he thanked us at the end of it all. I only wish we could have done more caving like that.

Back in Sagada we collected our bags and walked over to our new guesthouse. Very Christmassy with Christmas songs being played on the piano, and decorations all over the restaurant. We spent the afternoon relaxing in our rather lovely room and then had dinner in front of the open fire. It was all very mountain-lodge!

On our last day in Sagada we decided to go on a walk down to Echo Valley. We didn’t have a proper map so had to rely on a picture Trys had taken on his phone from a guidebook. I can’t say it was very useful as it didn’t show any of the multiple choices in route that we were confronted with. So we got lost. Many times. We made it down into the valley, and admired the river and the mouth of a cave down there, but going back up the other side proved difficult. We must have begun following every conceivable pathway, but they all lead to nowhere. We even did a bit of rock climbing to test out a potential route, but no luck there either. All we did achieve was covering ourselves in cuts and scratches as we snagged ourselves on all the bushes and branches. In the end we had to go back the way we came, which was fairly boring, but the safer option. We made it back in one piece and so treated ourselves to a drink and some cookies in one of the local cafes.

Our last day in Sagada was spent getting down to Manila for our flight out the following day. It wasn’t a relaxing beach break to end the trip on, but the fresh mountain air certainly prepared us slightly more for the cold English we were set to return to.

The Beauty of Boracay

6 Dec

Boracay is the perfect place to end a long trip. It has a beautiful beach, it’s sunny and you can just sit back and relax with a drink whilst watching the world pass you by. We, however, decided to make it our second to last stop. It’s a bit backward, but the flights were cheaper.

The first place we stayed was in a dorm just off the beach. Nothing very elaborate, but the food and drink was good, though expensive compared to the cheap prices we had grown accustomed to. That’s what tourists give back to a place, high prices and Western food. Well, we weren’t complaining; this was the real holiday part of the trip.

A few days later we changed hostels in the hope of meeting more people. Typically, on the day we left more people arrived. And the new place was weird to say the least. It was right on the beach, which was lovely, but all the people who worked there were a bit strange. The main woman insisted on calling everyone ‘darling’ and referred to Trys as my husband. They also refused to give us change if we didn’t have the right amount. Every peso counts!

I can’t say we did much in Boracay. We topped up our tans, ate lots of food, and enjoyed many a drink on the beach. It was a proper beach holiday, and we loved it. Enough said!

Coping with Kinabalu

22 Nov

Mount Kinabalu: the tallest mountain in South East Asia, standing at 4095m. a two-day climb, with one night on the mountain costs $100-$200. Climbing it in a day costs £40. Guess which one we opted for.

Our journey begins in Kota Kinabalu, the neighbouring town. We stayed one night there, then wasted no time in stocking up on food supplies before getting a minibus to the base. Well, we waited for the first minibus to fill up with people for an hour or so. Only 1 more person arrived, so we were transferred to a people carrier, where we waited for another 40 minutes. Another person came along, but no more. So we were then transferred to a taxi, and left within 10 minutes. It struggled up the mountain. Lorries, buses and bikes all sailed past us as we crawled our way up to the base, but we made it, and we presented ourselves at the headquarters to ask for a day-climb permit. The internet had told us to expect a grilling on why we wanted to do it, whether we were fit enough, etc., but the man just handed us the forms and told us we could do it in two days time. Excellent! Now to check into the hostel Trys had found. 1km from the Park HQ, it told us. 1km’s walk along the pavement-free road took us to a sign reading ‘Kinabalu Mountain Lodge 1km’. Great. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, except we were wearing flip flops, I was carrying my big bag, and the ground was wet and muddy, and hilly. It’s not altogether surprising that I fell over to be honest. Nice knee bruise to start the upcoming hike with. No matter, we checked into the lodge, and spent the afternoon there with an attention seeking cat, multiple layers of clothes on, and cradling a pot noodle for warmth.

With our spare day on the mountain we decided to do some of the lower trails. Some Canadians from the lodge had pointed out an alternative trail that took you up to the park instead of going along the road, so we followed the track through the trees and up the slope. The trails in the park itself were less exciting, but we wandered around the botanical gardens, and made our way around the various routes. The best part of the day was probably the discovery of some balaclava hats in the shop. They turned out to be an invaluable addition to the next day’s climb. Back at the hostel we found Jo, Dave and Pej, who were also embarking on the one-day climb. A quick comparison of preparedness indicated that we were all about as ready as each other, so we settled on some solidarity of winging it together.

6:30 the next morning Tim the taxi man turned up expecting to take Jo and Dave up to HQ. He got more than he bargained for as the 5 of us squished into the taxi. An interesting bunch we must have looked with our cobbled together hiking gear. Trainers, leggings, shorts, t-shirts, and a few extra layers on standby. At 7:40 we were off, about to embark on what soon turned out to be the hardest thing I have ever done. Trys and I had read a review online complaining that the mountain was more like 10,000 steps than an 11km walk. At the time we laughed at her words, but I feel we owe the mystery reviewer an apology, because she’s not wrong. Step after step after step. The early sections gave us a few metres of relief from the endless steps, but as we got higher the steps got steeper and bigger. Many of them came up to my knees. I think the one thing we were prepared for was the snack breaks! Every kilometre or so we got a few minutes’ break, during which time we fitted in a few sips of water and a good bit of chocolate to restore our energy levels. No point in staying more than a couple of minutes though, as our sweat-soaked clothes quickly cooled and sent us into fits of shivers.

At the base we had been told that we would be allowed up to the top so long as we reached the 6.5km point of Laban Rata by 12pm. At 10:45 our guide informed us that we had to be there at 11am, or we wouldn’t be allowed any further. Trys’ reaction was to run ahead to ensure he got there in time to continue. Dave then assured me he had misunderstood the message and that we could carry on at our pace and be fine. “Language barrier”, he told me. At 11:20 we arrived at Laban Rata, where we ignored their insistences that we would have to turn back, and managed to get a very hasty lunch. By this time Trys has gone on ahead with one of the guides, and I learn that Dave is in the right profession as a salesman because he’d just made up a fitting explanation to settle my earlier inquiries. He proved well enough that persistence and insistence are key.

From Laban Rata, Pej, Dave and I set off with the guide following behind, as before. I was already exhausted, and each step was an effort. 10 minutes in I said I would turn back and join Jo at Laban Rata, convinced I wouldn’t be able to push myself through the next 5km. More sales techniques from Dave spurred me on at a painfully slow pace. Another 10 minutes later, Pej turned back, leaving the two of us to battle on. By this time it had started drizzling, and the temperature was dropping. “Hat time”, we agreed. Matching hats donned, we pushed on. The steps eventually gave way to rock faces equipped with ropes to guide you up. This was marginally better than the steps because it gave you something to focus on. A poorly placed foot and a fall would send you sliding down the rocks and over the edge. My PE trainers served me well though, and we kept going, one foot after another. By this time I was only going forwards because I reasoned that I would still have to be walking, whether up or down, so I may as well keep going up. The last rock face brought us the welcome view of a ridge at the top, and soon enough the peak was just sticking out behind it. About this time we ran into Trys on his way down. “It’s really hard at the top, if you make it”, he said. Oh we’ll make it. With the peak in sight there was no stopping us. The guides told us once more that we’d have to turn back, but we refused them yet again, and ploughed on.

We found that the last section was actually the best part of it. Our ultimate aim was just ahead of us, all we had to do was clamber 200m up the steep section of rocks. The sign at the top was the final encouragement we needed, and at last we were there! The mist was swirling around us, giving us a few minutes to enjoy the view of the other peaks around us. Whilst our guide leisurely puffed away on yet another cigarette, we took the time to enjoy 10 minutes well-deserved rest.

Our day was by no means over though, as we then had to make the descent back down to the base. The rock face section was easy enough. Lethal, but manageable. By this time the rain had formed mini waterfalls down the smooth surface, making the ropes a necessary lifeline. The trainers didn’t hold up so well coming down, resulting in a few slips and bruises, but nothing serious. The hardest part was descending the 10,000 steps. My knees did not thank me for that. Progress for both Dave and I was ridiculously slow. We were each having to take one step at a time, leading with the same leg each time and hanging onto the rails like pensioners. The 500m markers took forever in coming around, and darkness soon starting coming in. That morning I had reasoned that a torch wouldn’t be necessary because we would definitely be back before dark. Dave’s torch was in the bag he’d left with Jo, who had been made to go down with Trys. That left us with one torch between the three of us. I probably got the best deal, being in the middle with the guide shining the torch as best he could to benefit everyone. At last we could see lights up ahead, and we were welcomed to calls from Trys and Jo. What a relief! The day was finally over.

When I spoke to Mum about it, she asked me if it was worth the effort, and I can honestly say it was. The scenery is nothing special, and the clouds obscure the view most of the time anyway, so I guess it can’t have been for that reason. I think it’s a matter of pushing yourself to the limits, and beyond them. Physically, I was tired, but not in terms of breathlessness, just aching legs. The real challenge was mental perseverance, and that was why it was so rewarding to stand at the top, because it signified a personal success. Or perhaps it was the altitutde!

Cats, Bats and Rats

22 Nov

The Indonesian part of Borneo gave us orangutans, the Indonesian part gave us cats, bats, and perhaps not rats, but definitely a few mice. Our first stop was Kuching, meaning ‘cat’ in Malaysian, a fact they take great advantage of at every possibility. The place is full of cat statues, each one a little creepier than the one before. I can’t say there’s much else there to be honest. We went to the national museum and walked along the waterfront, but Kuching didn’t offer anything else of interest. We did, however, stay in the best hostel yet. It is basically a flat that two guys have converted, and you feel like you’re at home the moment you walk through the door. The dorm room was pretty standard, but the communal areas were what made it special. TV, books, cushions to lounge around on, board games, and a help-yourself-at-any-time kitchen area. The owners would strum on a guitar whilst they manned the reception area in the corner, and you could just chill out in the home-away-from-home. If I had a hostel, I would do it like that.

Next stop was Miri, a coastal town near the Brunei border. We didn’t stay long in the town itself, but used it as a way of getting to the Niah caves. They were weirdly devoid of tourists. Not a single car in the car park, and we only saw one other group. Very strange, but nice to have the caves to ourselves. They were pretty cool, and we got to experience total darkness again. It was just unfortunate that the Painting Caves we had been hoping to see were closed for renovations. Sounds a bit suspicious to me, I think they might be touching up the artwork! Even so, we saw the Traders’ Cave, where people used to live with their families so they could collect birds’ nests. I can’t say I find the idea very appealing, as it stinks of guana (bat poo), its dank, and you run a high risk of falling victim to the bird poo from above. Not very cosy!

We had hoped to go to another set of caves in Gunung Mulu, but the flights there and up to Kota Kinabalu turned out to be crazy expensive, so we ended up skipping them and catching the bus from Miri to KK. 12 or so hours later and we had each knocked up 10 new stamps in our passports. Cheers Brunei! The road wiggled in and out of Brunei, taking us in and out of 4 immigration points, giving us 8 stamps, followed by a stamp out of Sarawak and another one into Sabah. I now have a year’s worth of stamps for Malaysia!

The Jungle VIP

10 Nov

“I’m the King of the Swingers, oh!
The Jungle VIP.
I reached the top and had to stop,
And that’s what’s bothering me.”

From the moment of our arrival in Malaysian Borneo we were being persuaded to go on a jungle tour to see the orangutans in Tanjung Puting. That is exactly why we had gone there in the first place, but we had expected the planning to be much easier than it turned out to be.

Let’s start at the beginning though, with Banjarmasin, the place we landed after flying in from Bali. We got a taxi from the airport into town without any trouble, and then began looking for a hostel. All the ones in the guidebook were fully booked, but the receptionists all pointed out ones to try. So we zig-zagged down the road in this fashion, until we got to another from the guidebook. The response we got to out request for a room was “no tourists”. Oh. Maybe we should be grateful that we didn’t end up in a stable at the back of the inn. To be fair we actually found quite a nice place after all the fuss, with free breakfast and snack! We did, however, get accosted by a tour guide before we could get in through the door. We waved him away, telling him we weren’t interested. Not to be put off, he comes back twice more, and joins us while we eat our dinner to discuss the next day’s itinerary, and bringing his friend along to sell us an orangutan tour. We eventually settled on a visit to the floating markets in the morning, which turned out to be a worthwhile trip, and the guide told us just how glad he was that we had accepted, as tourists were currently few and far between and he had a family to feed. Good thing he didn’t use that as a selling technique as I probably would have caved. Before we left he gave us a number for his friend Mr Masjid in Pangkalan Bun, who did orangutan tours.

16 hours on a bus took us from Banjarmasin to Pangkalan Bun, where we arrived at 4am. We were greeted by a man who represented Mr Masjid (who we hadn’t contacted), and who tried to use his limited English to sell us a tour. At 4am that was the last thing on our minds, but getting this across proved difficult, so it wasn’t until after he had called his friend over to act as a translator that we could finally get a hostel and go to bed. We met the representative twice more the next day – once at the hostel, waiting for us to get up, and once more on the street, handing me a phone to talk to the infamous Masjid. It turns out that our Banjarmasin guide had contacted him, followed by the bus driver, and then the moto-man who greeted us. It really is low season! Masjid came to talk to us at the hotel and we agreed on the most basic 3 day tour package to go into the jungle. Smallest boat, cheapest food, and the rest.

A few hours later we are getting on the boat in Kumai, which is anything but small. We somehow managed to wangle our way onto the most expensive package because the boat was already set up and ready to go. So there was Trys and I, plus 4 crew members on a boat big enough for at least 10 people. Every meal was a feast, drinks were freely handed out, and Trys and I commanded the top deck with our beds laid out across the boards.

The tour itself comprised of 3 stops at different feeding stations along the river. I hadn’t really known what to expect, but I couldn’t believe how close up we got to see the orangutans. The wooden platform where the rangers laid out the bananas was just a few metres away from where we stood, and the orangutans would come up from all parts of the jungle, so we weren’t short on things to look at. The way the swing through the trees is incredible, and they have some amazingly human characteristics. One of the kings, Jack, who is enormous, was sat on the platform stuffing his face with bananas when a mother and her baby climbed up to get their share of food. Jack was having none of it though, so kept batting her hands away while she made quick grabs for them while we wasn’t looking. It was just like watching children squabbling. In fact, we stayed so long at the first feeding station that the captain of the boat got worried and came looking for us.

The only slight drawback of the trip was the tourists. There weren’t huge numbers of people at each of the stations, but they were all budding photographers who insisted on standing rooted to the spot repeatedly clicking away on their cameras at what can only have been the exact same shot. Of the 10 or so people with big expensive cameras there were perhaps 1 or 2 people who knew how to use them. I can’t claim to be a particularly good photographer by any means, but I’m under no illusions about my skills and even I know that waiting for the right moment to get the perfect shot is much more satisfying than taking 20 photos with minimal differences between them.

Fortunately the trip did not end with clicking cameras and transfixed tourists, but with a trip to a local village along the river. It was a really lovely village: each house had a fairly big plot of land with flowers blooming in the gardens and vegetables growing in the plots of ground. Very peaceful, and obviously very lucky families who lived there. If I had a choice it would be to live there too.

On our Balimoon

4 Nov

If you speak to any local in Bali for long enough, they will ask you if you are on your honeymoon. “No”, we tell them “just friends”. This is fast becoming our catchphrase. As for a honeymoon in Bali, I can’t say it would suit my tastes. It’s undoubtedly a very beautiful island, but the traffic is just unbelievable. It’s like a permanent rush hour, but the roads are only just wide enough to fit two cars and the drivers act like they’re cruising down the motorway as they casually overtake vehicles on blind corners, hills, and without much thought to how close the oncoming vehicles are. Not my kind of honeymoon.

Apart from the crazy traffic, Bali has been one of my favourite places so far. The landscape varies from rice paddies to forests, and from beaches to mountains, and if you can find some peace and quiet it really is a lovely place with a lot of activities on offer. We chose diving and surfing as the activities to break the bank, and I think we chose well. The WWII shipwreck off the coast of Tulamben proved a lucky first dive for us. No licence necessary, we were given a 10 minute beach lesson, followed by 15 minutes practice in the shallow water, and then straight on down to the wreck. It’s amazing how close to shore the boat is, and still we were going down to 15m on our second dive. There is so much coral and so so many different kinds of fish to admire.
Good thing we purchased an underwater camera, although the photos are yet to be developed, so their quality is questionable. It felt like we were exploring the Titanic – the wreck looks just like the footage in the film, all covered in greenish brown sludgy plants, with sections that you could swim down into. All in all it was A-OK!

From Tulamben we got the minibus to take us to the nearby town of Amed, and from their we got a taxi across the island to Kuta. Taxis in Bali are so cheap that many tourists hire them for the day, so we settled for the luxury of our own private car for no more money than a minibus would be.

Kuta is surfer-central. And it is packed full of Australians. So much so that the market sellers call out to you in Aussie accents. I can’t say it’s a great selling point of the place. I think the people who come here are like the typical Brits on holiday in Mallorca. I don’t think the tourists reflect well on Australia! Kuta’s reputation for surfing, on the other hand, is well deserved. In fact, the swimming section of the long beach is limited to a tiny area between two red flags and the rest is of the sea is filled with surfers. Decked out in the gear and with a surf board each we had a quick beach lesson to go over the basic techniques of standing up and paddling, and then into the sea. What followed was four stints (each lasting just over an hour) of some of the most exhausting time I have ever spent. Backwards and forwards in the water trying to stand up on the wave then struggling back against the current to repeat over and over again. By the end of the day I was covered in bruises and rashes on my knees from the board, blisters on my toes, sand rashes from falling off and being scraped across the sand, and oh how I ached! Walking the next day was a struggle, but it was worth it. Money well spent!

Sunrise, Sunset

25 Oct

Holiday pictures wouldn’t be complete without the customary photos of sunrises and sunsets, and mine will not disappoint. Indonesia has given us three sunrises so far, and one sunset. Borobudur and Bromo in Java, and Ubud and Lovina in Bali.

We spent a morning relaxing on our porches in Ubud after our late arrival, and indulged ourselves in the free tea and coffee waiting on the table, along with the pandan banana pancakes and fruit salad that was included for breakfast. In the afternoon we went to Monkey Forest, where we wandered through the trees with monkeys climbing on us every so often. The babies were cute, but the older ones just bared their teeth and growled when you put your arms out to them. After that,we followed a walk the guide book had recommended to a viewpoint over the paddy fields. Bali is not at all what I expected. I thought it was just a beach holiday destination for Australian teens, but it is so much more than that. Everywhere is so green and lush, and once we had escaped the endless traffic that fills the streets of Ubud, we could relax in the tranquility of the countryside. We managed to get to the viewpoint for sunset by coincidence, so we settled down in one of the paddy fields and watched as the sun disappeared over the horizon. I say settled down, but really we messed around trying to get the camera timer to take silhouette pictures of the four of us spelling out ‘Bali’. It wasn’t a bad attempt, but the locals definitely thought we were crazy.

Lovina then added to our collection of sunrise pictures, though not as spectacularly as we might have hoped. Upon getting off the bus from Ubud, we were almost immediately approached by a man on a bike recommending a cheap hostel to us, so we hopped on and checked in. As usual, it was then sell sell sell as he tried to promote his snorkelling trips to us. We’d come to Lovina to see the dolphins, so we agreed to go on the sunrise tour the next morning. 5:45am meet he told us.

5:20 the next morning we wake up to bang bang bang on the door. Confused, we open it up to find him on the other side expecting us to be ready in minutes. Does he sit down to wait? Oh no, he just stands in the doorway as we stumble out of bed and try to find suitable clothes to wear for the trip. We are then taken to his bike, where be motions for both of us to climb on. “Really?”, I ask him. “Really.” So I spent the next 10 minutes sandwiched between him in front of me and Trys behind. Local style!

The trip itself was a bit of a failure. We got in some crazy boats, which were like the hull of a rowing boat, but much deeper, and either side were arms that came out and attached to logs of wood that lay on the water. Think something out of Star Trek crossed with a spider, bike stabilisers, a catamaran, and a rowing boat, and you might get the idea. So once in our vessel we motored off across the water after the twenty or so other boats. Needless to say we didn’t see any dolphins. Apparently there was too much wind and too many waves. Personally I think there were too many tourists. Nevermind, the sunrise was quite pretty, and the spider-boats had their own charm, and we had snorkelling to look forward to. Guess what, that was a disappointment as well. Perhaps if it had been our first trip we would have been impressed, but it didn’t come close to the experience we had in the Perhentians. The coolest things were the small electric blue fish, and numerous starfish that were lying around. Other than that there wasn’t much going on. Out hopes are high for diving down to a shipwreck off the east coast, so fingers crossed.

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

25 Oct

If anyone were to read trough the diary I have been keeping throughout this trip, they would see that a large number of the entries begin with a comment on how early we had to get up that day. 8am is a legitimate lie-in for many people, but sometimes even 7am is a lie-in for us. Indonesia has been no exception so far, as all trips start in the morning, so Borobudur and Mount Bromo were no exception. The first of these is a large Buddhist Temple that is supposed to rival Angkor Wat in its impressiveness, but my personal opinion is that it doesn’t come close. We settled for the 5am pick-up, which isn’t even in time for sunrise so I don’t know why they make it so early. Incidentally, the 4am ‘sunrise’ pick-up is 410,000 Rupiah (£26) excluding the $25 entrance fee, whereas one hour later is 225,000 Rupiah (£15). Can’t quite see what extras you’re paying for…but anyway, 5am brought us into the morning mist swirling round the trees at the base of the temple, and we began the ascent up the various different levels. After having paid for the trip, plus extra for the ticket (locals are charged less than 50p), we refused to pay even more for a guide, so much of the carvings were lost on us, so we simply admired the architecture and the view, and made use of the few signs dotted around. Although impressive, it was no Angkor Wat, and the breakfast was rubbish!

Mount Bromo, on the other hand, was well worth the 4am pick-up to see the sun rise over the volcano. We had paid for the jeep tour, which dropped us at the bottom of a track lined with men trying to sell us rides on their horses. We declined, and made our way up to the top of the viewpoint in time to watch the sun coming up over Mount Bromo. Really beautiful, freezing cold, full of tourists! Apart from the actual volcano, you could also see the tracks from the lava flow, still imprinted in the ground.

The second stage of the trip took us to the bottom of the volcano itself, and we could then walk up to the top of it and peer into the crater. Everywhere was covered in ash, not just a fine layer, but masses of the stuff. Once we were out of the jeep we immediately felt the combined effects of the wind and the ash, resulting in everything I was wearing that day being full of ash, including underwear. As for my hair, I’m fairly certain that’s still got pieces of ash knocking around in it. Some kind Japanese tourists gave me one of their face masks, so I ascended with a doctor’s mask attached to me – very fetching! On the edge of the crater you could hear the distant rumblings of the volcano deep inside, and the ash blizzards were even worse. It’s hard to imagine it erupting, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the firing line.

In addition to the early start for Bromo, we got the bus and boat Bali on the same day, arriving at 10:30 at the bus station in Denpasar. Except we didn’t get dropped off in the centre, but in Mengwi bus station, half an hour out of the city. Actually, we had wanted to go to Lovina in the north, but demonstrations were holding the bus up, so we settled for the south. In the end, we got a taxi to Ubud with a couple of others from the bus and began waking the whole town up looking for a place to stay. Dogs barking absolutely everywhere and ridiculously priced rooms seemed to be our only greeting, until we finally managed to find a nice place within our budget. It wasn’t until the next day that we realised that Bali was an hour ahead of Java, so it had actually been 12:30 when we were wandering around shut-up hostels wondering why nobody was returning our calls. Oops!

15 Minutes of Fame

25 Oct

Touchdown in Jakarta brought us back to reality after the brief stint of luxury in Singapore. We took the bus from the airport to the backpacker area of the city, and were soon confronted with everything you look to avoid. Traffic, noise, pollution, tall grey buildings – you name it, Jakarta has it. The short walk from the station to our hostel was enough to confirm that we wouldn’t be staying there long, and we quickly set about looking for our next destination. The first tourist office we went in was owned by a man who insisted that were bad travellers because we didn’t plan our journey weeks ahead, and proceeded to lecture us on wasting time, whilst doing just that. Needless to say we made our excuses and left as soon as we could.

That afternoon we went to the national monument, which was sectioned off with railings and gave no clues as to where the entrance might lie. After following a few locals through gaps in the railings we eventually found our way into the museum at the base of the monument. Each of the walls had 5 or 6 glass display units with elaborate models depicting events from history. We tried to make our way around the room, tracing Indonesia’s history, but our main distraction was the numerous schoolchildren who were also in the museum. I guess tourists are not quite so common here because I had my picture taken with at least 50 people, and they were genuinely queuing up to get their prized pictures. I don’t know how celebrities handle it. And after all our efforts to get into the place, it turned out the tower shut at 3pm, another thing the guidebook neglected to tell us. So no view over the city, but I doubt we missed out on much.

The one good thing about Jakarta is the TransJakarta bus system, which is like an above-ground bus version of the underground. 3500 Rupiah (23p) to go anywhere in the network, with as many connections as you like. We made use of this to take us up to the north of the city, where the influence of the Dutch was meant to have produced some interesting architecture. Well this turned out to be an overstatement, and our hopeful walk up to the docks were no more fruitful. In fact, that was the only time in the whole of our trip so far that we felt unsafe, partly due to the crazy traffic and limited pavements, but more down to the number of homeless people living on the streets, eyeing us with suspicion and with sideward glances at my bag. So we flagged down a tuk tuk to take us back to the station, and made our way back to the hostel. Interesting to note that the TransJakarta buses are split into two sections – the front gives precedence to wanita, or women, and the back is for everyone.

Our second stop in Indonesia proved far more successful, and was much more to our tastes. Yogyakarta. It may have taken us some time to master the pronunciation of the city, but we immediately felt at home in the traditional winding alleys and relaxed atmosphere of the street. Almost every street has a musician or band of some sort strumming a tune on a guitar, and Malioboro Road has a band playing traditional instruments every 100m or so. We enjoyed our first real encounter with the local way of eating food when we chose one of the many straw mats to sit on for dinner. Our meals were served in straw dishes, and with no cutlery, so you just make like the locals and use your hands.

Day two in Yogyakarta took us around the Sultan’s palace and his Water Castle. We were once again surrounded by schoolchildren wishing to conduct ‘interviews’ with us, and asking for a photo. Oh so famous! The palace itself was interesting, but only two of the rooms had English explanations, so we didn’t really understand many of the photos and displays. For the water castle we managed to pick up a self-appointed tour guide who explained how the Sultan would stand up in his tower while his concubines bathed in the pool underneath, allowing him to then choose the one who took his fancy and take her into the massage parlour, and then on to more serious business! Our friendly tour guide turned out to give us a whole tour of the surrounding area, including a trip to his house, so we weren’t massively surprised when he asked for money for his services. We should know this by now though, as the first rule in Asia is start a conversation with tourists, gain their trust, then sell sell sell. And let me tell you this, Indonesia wins first prize.

Flying High

20 Oct

We have been tricked into living the high life (whilst still on a budget) while travelling through Thailand and Malaysia, which culminated in indulgence in Johor Bahru, and day-to-day expenses in Singapore. Johor Bahru has nothing much to offer in terms of sightseeing, but we stopped off there to see Trys’ friend’s coffee shop. It began badly with the bus station being way out of town, none of the taxi drivers knowing the address of the cafe, and no answer to our phone calls to the cafe. Oh and when we did manage to get there in the end, the shop was shut. It wasn’t looking good at all. But half an hour later the shop opened up, and we treated ourselves to some delicious coffee and food in the very trendy cafe.

From there we hopped on a bus over the border to Singapore, which was almost entirely painless, except the bus didn’t bother waiting for us after getting stamped in, because we were the only ones who had to fill in an arrival card. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long for the next bus to come through, and we were in to Singapore, the most expensive country yet.

To be honest, I was never particularly excited about Singapore, it just didn’t interest me that much. Oh how my opinion has changed! It’s probably the best city I have ever been to, and although it is expensive, it’s not that bad compared to England. The metro system is amazing, the streets are clean, it’s busy and yet quiet in the city, and there’s loads of cool stuff to see and do there.

We began by going to the national museum, which was full of interactive displays and other bits to keep us entertained. After that we went down to the Marina to see the light show across the water. Everyone had told us it was amazing, and we weren’t disappointed. And it’s put on twice every evening, three times at weekends. What a place! Not only was the light show cool, but all the surrounding buildings in the business district look exactly like a city should be at night. All lit up to make an impressive skyline.

Day two didn’t disappoint, because we went to the zoo, and nobody could possibly walk away unhappy from this particular zoo. None of the animals are in cages, so it is much more ethical for a start, but the sheer variety of animals is also applaudable. You name it, we probably saw it. And it wasn’t a case of a solitary lion sitting behind a rock behind reinforced glass. Oh no, this zoo has more than one of each animal, and they are all in open enclosures (oxymoron?), happily playing, or eating, or just chilling in the sun. In case you can’t tell, we liked the zoo! So much so, we went back for the night safari. Before that we had to make a detour back to the city to go on the Singapore flyer, which is just like the London Eye, but sped up slightly. Sadly it was raining, so we didn’t get the most incredible views, and we had to go before 6pm so we missed out on the night panorama. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it, and headed back to the zoo in high spirits.

The night safari gave us more than we bargained for in terms of entertainment. We were greeted by a crazy fire show, which was half-naked men yipping and yelling while twirling batons of fire and doing various fire-breathing tricks. And there was the customary ‘humiliate a tourist’ routine, involving a man being pulled up on stage to get involved in the madness.

And the craziness didn’t stop there. We made our way over to the ‘critters of the night show’, which was what we had been lead to believe to be an educational show. They must have been using the term very loosely, because it would be better described as organised chaos, set out in true to-me to-you Chucklebrother style. there were animals darting across the stage, snakes appearing out of the audience’s seats, overstated acting from the keepers, and more embarrass-the-audience’ techniques. It reminded me of the crazy circus we saw in Ho Chi Minh City, but it somehow made the madness into pure genius. They say the two are closely related…

It was actually the tram ride around the park that was the least exciting. Perhaps if we hadn’t already seen lions, tigers, giraffes etc. before on numerous occasions we would have been more impressed. Perhaps our worldliness has gone too far!

We ended our brief stint in Singapore in true high-flying fashion by catching out first plane in Asia to Jakarta, Indonesia. And from the moment we took off we said goodbye to living in luxury.