Friday, 14 September 2012

Chilli in the eye in Chiang Mai

I am writing this episode from somewhat less exciting setting than the usual internet cafĂ© surrounded by slightly sweaty men gaming away online. Instead, I am in the back of Dad’s car which is speeding along the motorway. The destination is pretty exciting, however, as I am headed to Nottingham for a reunion with my brother and (soon to be officially) sister-in-law. And my first introduction to my nephew Jamie who was born some 5 months ago. That’s the truly exciting meeting.

But rewind to 17th July when I was still on my travels, jaunting merrily around south east Asia. After the final trek through Lao rainforest, we were on a tight timetable to get over the river border and make our way to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. As ever the lazy student (and just to complete the stereotype, I might mention I am wearing my Bob Marley T-shirt), I pass over to my diary entry:

“We’ve had quite a wonderful time in Chiang Mai. It was a pretty frantic journey to get there, or at least to leave Laos. It rained on our last day of the Gibbon Experience so hard that the cars couldn’t get all the way to the village where they originally dropped us two days before. So we had a bit of extra hike on a rather steep road. There was swearing and sweaty faces and a lot of talk of littering and Holland, although those topics weren’t connected. Even when we did get to the 4WD trucks, they seriously struggled to get up the hills and through the slippery mud. There were a couple of moments where I truly thought either our car or the other – which was struggling much more, to the point where its passengers were obliged to get out and push – would roll. But we all made it out alive, if a bit bruised and certainly muddy.”

Just an aside, I don’t think that paragraph, upon reading back, properly conveys the terror I felt in that truck. I think it was largely Lorna talking about her idyllic Devon that kept me from strangling the Dutch girl taking photos of the other car losing control and skidding sideways behind us, a fate that I was sure we were going to replicate but with more rolling and death. The only thing that interrupted her blessed nattering was a few serious jolts that almost brought our foreheads together and certainly had us grabbing for any handhold on the car ceiling. Then there was the point when the tyres started smoking; it was unclear whether that was because we were actually stuck in the muddy rut we were in or because our driver was making the way easier for the less capable truck behind us. That was off road driving like I had not quite experienced before.

“Anyway, the rain resulted in a delay for us getting back to Huay Xai so we were almost running to try and catch our bus. We got back to the hostel before 4pm and were collected on foot only to be taken to the river and told to go through immigration and on to a ferry to catch our bus from the other side. As though we were simply walking talking baggage we got a destination label stuck to us [this preliminary indignation at these stickers gave way to a placid acceptance and then on a later journey without them, as they had become better than tickets for us, they were sorely missed]. In a further rush, we stumbled through passport control and then straight down to a boat where our confused falang bumbling seemed to get us on the boat to Chiang Kong for free – or maybe another lady who gave us directions, paid some money, but didn’t get on the boat paid for us. Either way, after the quick crossing we went through the Thai border control and used our sticker to locate ‘Mr Kapthan’ (Mr Captain) amongst the drivers on that side. And once we found him after all that rushing we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the final passenger!

It was a pretty smooth 4-5 hour drive in the mini-van from there. And I mean that in every sense – the roads are certainly a lot better than Laos, and that was just the start. We were amazed by electricity cables everywhere and stopped for snacks in a 7/11! Fully air conditioned with snacks in plastic wrappers and a coffee machine. After 2 weeks in underdeveloped Laos, Thailand was a culture shock.

The next day we just took easy with a little bit of exploring. After a truly terrible breakfast we headed to a veggie restaurant for delicious green curries. We had tea and found gorgeous soap in a little shop before planning our next 2 days of activities with a lovely man in a tourist booth. The night time antics, our first in weeks and on this trip, were the best part of that day. We met up with a few others who had been on the Gibbon and subsequent mini-van ride – Kerry, Brian and Lisa (Americans) and a Kiwi, Anna, who was especially good fun with her Dori faces and dancing. I had a tasty khow sou curry, particular to Chiang Mai, and tried a Chang beer that made me feel sick. Then it was onto a reggae bar for 80 baht mojitos – less than £2/$3 – and to watch the live bands play. We were the first there and the first to start the dancefloor. We made new friends: notably two Glaswegians whom Lorna could not understand and a Hawaiian man named Yahweh, unbelievably.

The hangovers were not a good start to our cookery course the following day. Lorna in particular was on struggle street. We first visited a market to learn the difference between normal and sticky rice in dry form; that when tofu is coloured orange, it’s from turmeric; and what the different noodles – egg, glass and rice – are made of and good for. Then it was on to the farm to learn about fruit, veg (a lot of tiny green eggplants) and herbs/spices. There is more than one kind of ginger!

We were very lucky to have Gay, the owner of the school, Asia Scenic, and face of the business, teaching us. She had great energy, fantastic English and some pretty funny jokes. More useful than the specific recipes (detailed in a book we were each given at the end) were the tips for flavouring; how much of what to use; which herbs to eat and which should be left on your plate when eating a dish; and that you always chuck in the strongest flavour first. The green curry was probably my favourite and I was proud to make the paste from scratch. Aside from rubbing chilli on my face multiple times, it was a really great day.

We headed over to the UN Irish pub for a quiz that evening with a lovely newly-wed Kiwi couple we had met on the cookery course, Jenny and Dave. It was bizarre to be in a pub surrounded by farang doing a quiz in Thailand. It wasn’t the best night as my mood dropped and ebbed with a mixture of homesickness, missing Australia too and physical nausea. So there was no more dancing in bare feet to live bands that night. I fell asleep listening to Passenger, ‘Let her go’, focusing my attention on their genius line, ‘you only hate the road when you’re missing home’.

The following day we both felt a bit under the weather which dampened spirits slightly for the elephant mahout training course we booked. After a somewhat sceptical start, we were won over completely by the Dante elephant park, the animals owned by the same villagers that run the place. We watched a baby elephant called Ploi play with our guide Chin.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Laos' Closing Chapter: Experiencing Gibbons

Sometimes it is good to be able to write these entries a few weeks (or months as I have managed before) after the act itself so that I can start using superlatives. And the Gibbon Experience, a tourism/conservation project based in Bokeo province, northern Laos, is one of those trips that deserves superlatives. With just 5 days left until I get back to the UK, it could very well end up being the best thing we have done in the entire 5 weeks we've tripped and trailed through south east Asia. That is a particularly impressive title to grant it since it was also the part of the trip we were most excited about, the only part we actually booked in advance and, given it was the rainy season, could well have been a big disappointment.

Out of laziness, I give over here to my journal entry written on the first night of our 2 night/3day 'Classic Experience':

"We are in a mosquito net tent in a treehouse in the jungle of Bokeo Province, Laos. And that sentence is so ridiculous I don't even know what to follow it with. I can hear the rainforest all around us. Constant insect chirping; the soft patter of rain from the fringe of a storm; and the occasional squawk of a bigger animal - bird, monkey or bigger, I can't tell.

It took a combination of ziplining and hiking to get here - so a combination of fairly physical slog and bursts of adrenaline, zooming (and that's the noise it makes above your head as you whiz across the line) for up to 400 metres about 30 or 40 metres above the ground, above the lower canopy, to see some utterly breath-taking views. We are now
in the scenery we have been admiring for a week from buses and boats.

When we arrived in our treehouse we had some fruit - rambutan, sour green mango, longan - and delicious coffee with condensed milk while getting to know our 5 in the group, as well as our guides a bit better. That bonding continued over Lao wine (fizzy, a bit like it was turning to vinegar but mysteriously got better with every sip), tea and card games. First 'chopsticks' instead of spoons then cheat which became 'bo men!' in Lao. My very simple knowledge of the numbers in Lao came in handy [many thanks to Rachel Dance!].

Before dark fell we had showers. Definitely the coolest shower of my life. As you wash the mud off, the water falls through the slats to the ground far below [remember the height of the zip lines? Well they are how you access the treehouses so you can guess roughly how high your bed for the night it]; you can't even see it for the trees. And straight ahead of you is the whole rainforest laid out for your viewing pleasure. Layers of green hills stretching out to the distance and you can see it all as there are no walls, no barrier at all except for the fence at elbow height to keep you in. Right while you are soapy and naked. Talk about being at one with nature.

My favourite part of the evening (pretty tough call to make) was watching the storm. The lightening would light up the whole sky and top canopy layer, just for a fraction of a second. And then sometimes another flash, the lightening mimicking a heartbeat. The storm skirted around our treehouse, or so it seemed from the changing sources of thunder. And the lightening clap too, the heart of it like a bright moon or fleeting spotlight looked directly into, moved above the hills to our left. I can still hear a few rumbles in the distance."

I fell asleep that night (despite small paranoia about rats; another of the treehouses actually had a cat but it isn't a problem if you don't have food in your bag) listening to those rainforest sounds and I felt content to be so at one with nature. It's a great self satisfied feeling you can only truly achieve by being close enough to hear nature but far enough away so it can't touch you.

The next morning, that tranquility in my soul was quite abruptly interrupted by our guide, a wonderful young man by the name of Boun Peng (as a group of 5 girls, 4 of us left with serious crushes). Lorna does the best impression of his wake up call but I will try to reproduce it in written form for you - "Hello, please, excuse me.... WAKE UP!" We jumped to it, half blind and in pyjamas but awake. Although all completely unable to put on our own harnesses, which Boun Peng secured for each of us 5. Even semi-comatose as we were, the gibbon singing filtered through the sleep. Between Boun Peng's urgency for us to move and that strange song - half long whoop, half R2D2 beeps - we were pretty thrilled and up for the chase that ensued.

After ziplining out of the treehouse, we hurried to the kitchen hut and then took a left turn completely off the track and into real jungle, stepping as quietly as we could, as quickly as we could and failing on both counts, watching Boun Peng and stopping as he stopped, which was every time the gibbon paused its song. But we were getting closer. And then, as we had started to lose hope of actually seeing the singer, Boun Peng thrust an arm up to point to the tree tops and there was my first gibbon. A black shape, a bit bigger than I had imagined, not unlike a man with extraordinarily long arms, hanging between two tree tips.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Volume 2: Journey to Huay Xai

The arrival at the bus station brought about our first dose of reality in Laos - dirty squatting toilets that you have to pay to use and the VIP bus leaving late. We certainly were leaving the comfort of the Dances behind. BUT all in all, it was actually a very comfortable bus ride after all the horror stories I've read and heard about south east Asia. We had air conditioning that worked (no, not just open windows as Dad suggested) and fairly comfy seats that reclined, the only complaint was that we were limited on leg room, probably because we are both somewhat bigger than our Asian friends. And it only left about half an hour late and took 12 hours instead of 11. But A LOT better than I was expecting, especially as lunch was included, all for only 10 quid.

The best part about this first leg of the journey was how much of Laos we got to see pass us by out of the window. Leaving Vientiane we witnessed a bizarre mix of rather more traditional wooden housing on stilts and then grand pink and white homes with over-the-top ornate Greek columns and even bronze eagles decorating the fronts. In a country where the majority of the population lives on $2 a day, you have to wonder who on earth is staying in these monstrosities. We quite quickly passed the city outskirts and got into the real countryside where we could watch people planting rice, ploughing their land (sometimes with a motorised machine and other times with buffalos) and actually wearing those stereotypical Asian flat cone hats. For the next 10 hours or so we felt like we had travelled back in time. The land itself was pretty amazing to watch pass us by: beyond the rice paddies in the foreground, great mountains rose up behind covered in green. I am not sure if they were monoliths or some other geographical rock formation thing I am not familiar with, but these mountains, that looked huge compared to the flat ground before them but could probably be called miniature as mountains go, just seemed to have been thrust out of the ground and then coated in green as bamboo and other adventurous trees grew from their steep sides. It would turn out this was just the beginning of the end of flat land for us.

The road slowly became windier and as the bus was forced to wind more, it became slower. We were also getting higher and higher until a break in the trees would reveal a sheer drop just a few metres away from the bus. Our average 20km/h speed at this point probably explains why a distance of roughly 370km took us 12 hours. The view was simply stunning from so high. We could see layer upon layer of hills covered in jungle with low lying cloud threading in between the valleys, later in the day occasionally catching glimpses of a river below. Amazingly, there were also settlements up here, houses starting on the ground by the road and supported by stilts on their other side to provide a flat floor and prevent the home slipping down the mountainside. Even more amazingly, as dark fell I could see electric lights and televisions in these wooden and thatch dwellings, the walls sometimes made of woven leaves more like a basket than a building. In the middle of nowhere in mountainous Laos, modern technology meets ancient construction. That image was a bit of a mind bend to think through.

We gratefully arrived in Luang Prabang, hopped in a tuk tuk and found a hostel before grabbing a very cheap 1 dollar dinner in the night markets and then heading to bed. The next day we started at 5am getting up to watch the daily alms giving ceremony. Local people sit on the pavement with a big bamboo pot of rice and place handfuls in each monk's pot that passes. And there are a lot of monks to feed - they make a very orderly, quiet queue down the street for their breakfast, all with shaved heads and dressed head to toe in orange robes. We walked toward the north of the city where the rivers meet as there are fewer tourists up there and you can see the monks in more peace. We watched them line up and exit their wat while listening to the gongs sounding the start of the ceremony. Many of them were just boys and though they live a life of abstinence and disciplined meditation regimes, you could still catch glimpses of the young adolescents that they were - some dragging their feet or tapping another to check out the funny looking falang in their pyjamas (i.e. Lorna and I). It was a quiet and peaceful show of Buddhist culture that we felt really fortunate to witness, managing to mostly avoid seeing it slightly soiled by tourists jumping on the bandwagon and joining the locals in rice giving. It is a connection between the people and the monks, it is about doing a good deed and believing it will earn them merit for the future life, it's not just charity as we know it. So for us, it was better just to watch than try to join in.

To be continued.... (I need to catch a train to Bangkok now)

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Lorna and I in Laos: Volume I, Vientiane

So, properly, sabaidee from Laos. I am currently in a pretty bizarre place: an internet cafe in Huay Xai, surrounded by young boys playing online games, seemingly with each other as they shout across me. It's sort of hilarious place to be writing down my adventures. Just across the river, which starts only about 200 metres to my left, there is Thailand. Illustrating our proximity, my phone is using a Thai network here and most places accept Thai baht.

Anyway, I have a bit of catching up to do with the blog and am hoping at least to get my few exceedingly comfortable days in Vientiane down. I was grateful to be met at the airport by Lorna and her family friend, Rachel Dance and to be staying with her and her husband, David Dance, a doctor specialising in tropical diseases. After a night sleeping on the floor of the budget Kuala Lumpur airport and waking up to hurried footsteps going in every direction before I got on another cramped Air Asia flight, I was grateful to be in a very civilised house with a fridge full of food, clean sheets on a comfortable bed, a hot shower and, best of all, grown ups to look after me and advise us on our travels. My first day in Laos pretty much consisted solely of comfort, planning, getting to know my generous hosts and catching up with Lorna. We were treated to dinner in Le Vendome, a French restaurant indicative of Laos' colonial past. I had magret de canard with mango, a dish I haven't anything close to since the last time I was in France, nearly 2 years ago now I think.

We had a somewhat busier time the next day. The morning was spent wandering through Talat Sao, the non-food market, with Rachel as our guide showing us the difference between natural and chemical dyes as well as how to spot superior workmanship in fabrics and pointing out traditional cross stitch and common patterns or themes. After fresh spring rolls and a gorgeous fresh passion fruit juice for lunch, we headed to the COPE museum.

COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and their museum details the recent history of the secret war in Laos during the conflict in Vietnam. COPE itself, as indicated by its name, is a charity that provides prosthetic limbs and other support, both physical and psychological, primarily for victims of the UXO (unexploded 'bombies') that still litter the countryside but also for people suffering from diseases such as clubfoot or leprosy. It was an excellent museum and we watched an emotional yet very informative documentary called Bomb Harvest that detailed efforts to form bomb disposal units in each region to save further lives still being destroyed. All perpetrated by an enemy unknown to most Lao people living in isolation of the hills, only recognisable 50 years ago by planes high in the sky that broke international laws and conventions by dropping death on a supposedly neutral country.The 30% of their cluster bombs that didn't explode in the air or upon impact are taking hands and feet and lives today. It was pretty harrowing and I'm not confident in my ability to really express the shock and tragedy I felt. Watching a short interview with parents of a child killed by a combination of a bombie and lack of proper healthcare ("We drove to one hospital but there was no blood or oxygen. We drove to another, but again they had no blood or oxygen. We took him home so that he did not die in the truck."), Lorna and I were left speechless and shaken. The drawings by eyewitnesses compounded the horror. Beyond the sadness and fear, there was also guilt and self-loathing depicted for not doing more. Punishment heaped upon punishment for no wrong committed.

I would highly recommend that any visitor to Vientiane take a few hours to visit this centre and take in the inhumanity of the damage inflicted on this country. If you really want to 'go travelling' and experience the 'real' country, like all the gap yahs claim, then take time to learn some history, bloody and unattractive as it often is, because no matter how many beautiful temples and sunsets you see and photograph, it's the difficult things you see that you'll remember and learn from. So I'd like to say how grateful I am to the Dances for recommending the museum and I'll get off my soapbox now, except to say if you want to learn more, the website is 

After COPE, we recovered ourselves back to usual giggling exuberant form, storing more meaningful thoughts for later. We were excited to flag down our first tuk tuk, Lorna using the 'pat the dog' technique - not waving but sticking your hand out and keeping it relatively low, part of the cultural crash course Rachel provided us - to great success and we managed to bargain 10,000 kip off our fare - about $1.20. We were dropped off at Wat Sok Pha Luang where we had hoped to get massages or experience a herbal sauna but we had arrived too late, right in the middle of prayer time. The monks and nuns were sat amongst the company of dogs while the chants went on. We were feeling very self conscious and quite wary of insulting anyone through our own ignorance so we didn't enter the praying area and instead wandered around what turned out to be a fairly unimpressive wat (temple) from the others we've seen since. But we did both notice the distinct difference between the Balinese Hindu temples which are very much places for worship on important occasions while the Buddhist wats are more like monasteries as the monks and nuns live there full time. I still need to learn if they do anything for the community or if, and this is all I can gather so far, they do simply lead lives of strict meditation regimes and abstinence in their quest for ultimate spiritual enlightenment. As we learned later in Luang Prabang watching the alms ceremony, it seems to be the community that provides for the monks rather than the converse. Interestingly, Lorna, who has had more experience of Buddhism than me, commented that it was a rather selfish religion as you are essentially seeking peace for yourself and each individual must do it by and for themselves.

The next day would have been rather lazy had it not been for the 17km bike ride the Dances treated us to around some of the backstreets and dirt roads of Vientiane. We enjoyed great views of the river, saw rice paddies and people fishing. We received calls of 'Sabaidee!' and smiles from just about everyone we passed. It was fairly amazing, to Rachel and David even more so than Lorna and I since they were comparing to the views just 6 months ago, to see the extent of development going on in the capital city. We passed diggers and roads being improved, as well as wetlands cleared for new buildings. We also passesd the Russian embassy, a ridiculous concrete cube that resembles something out of a 1960s James Bond film. The market we rode through also revealed change; the young women (teenagers and my age) were dressed far more skimpily than Rachel had informed us was respectable and in a far more Western style - fewer sin (the traditional skirt) and more shorts.

That night we had our first taste of Lao food, trying laab, riverweed, buffalo, morning glory (a vegetable, we discovered) and scooping handfuls of sticky rice from small baskets designed to keep it warm. It was lovely to sit outside and enjoy a live band performing such classics as Ronan Keating 'When you say nothing at all' but getting the words wrong.

On Sunday, we visited Buddha Park, a bizarre man-made modern holy ground. Overseeing the park is a giant Buddha lying quite serenely on its side, resting its head on one hand as if to calmly observe the madness around it: an absolute melange of Buddhist and Hindu statues and imagery placed quite deliberately, it seemed, but with no sense obvious to us. Dominating one end of the park was a huge 3 or 4 storey pumpkin shaped construction that inside seemed to represent 3 levels of Hell. There were broken, incomplete and abandoned smaller statues here, enclosed in the semi-darkness and their positioning seemed grotesque in that setting. At the top, you could crawl out of a small opening to stand atop of the pumpkin and survey the craziness with a tree of life crowning the strange giant vegetable. The whole experience was quite bizarre and not without sinister aspects but we both thoroughly enjoyed it - there was definitely a strange appeal to it. Helped of course by our giggling fits.

Monday was our final full day in Vientiane and with the comfort of the Dances. We made it a busy one. Aside from our errands for departure the next day, we also visited the food market and the National Museum. The market was certainly an experience: narrow aisles with buckets of live fish, tied up crabs and netted bowls containing frogs. While that was distressing for the animal lover within Lorna, the smell of the fermenting fish, loved by the Laos, was fairly off putting for both of us. It was certainly an education and, at the fruit end, exciting to try out some simple Lao phrases to buy snacks for the next day's bus journey. The National Museum can be quite fairly summed up in one word: communist. It was a bit old and tired yet full of the requisite propaganda revering the appropriate revolutionaries and damning both the brutal colonialist French masters and the 'US imperialist'. An interesting experience as much for the presentation of photos and information and building itself as the somewhat biased history we learned inside it.

I've spent far too long in here now so it's time to find Lorna. Start of Gibbon Experience tomorrow and then onto Chiang Mai so we have a few things left to sort out but we are very excited for the next 3 days!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Early to Bed in Bali

Sa bai dee from Laos (although I should say apa kabar as this is an entry on Bali)! I am currently lying in bed having just finished a cup of tea so I could summon the strength for another blog entry. This one could be a particularly long saga but I will try and curb my natural tendency toward being verbose.

For those unfamiliar with the stereotypical Australian image of Bali, it is pretty much on a par with Magaluf for Brits (and if you need that explained then just google image search Magaluf). But just as Spain has stacks of history and culture away from the holiday resorts and drunk teenagers, so does the small Indonesian island of Bali - and it was that Bali I was trying to find in just 5 days.

As a good start, I left Seminyak-Kuta as quickly as I could. Still minus my big backpack, I was sweltering in trousers so bought a dress to change into for 70k IDR (about $7) and got to talking to the stall holder about getting to Sanur. One thing I was learning pretty quickly was that, while all very friendly and pleasant people, some Balinese are happy to rip off tourists; the hostel reception staff told me 250k for a taxi to get to Sanur while this helpful stallholder informed me it would be around 100k or cheaper on a motorbike. I know from an Australian perspective 250k is not a huge amount of money but prices should be somewhat relative to the country - I do not mind paying more than a local as that's inevitable but hate the prospect of being taken advantage of through being in a position of ignorance.

I wandered down to the beach where I saw my first glimpse of why Bali is such a great holiday destination: an incredibly long beach with a very blue sea and a little surf. Without my bag, I had no swimsuit and so took a seat to figure out my next move. Quite quickly, I was approach by a young man called Norman (or quite possibly Nyoman which I think is somewhat more Balinese) who wanted to teach me how to surf. I declined but figured I could ask what he thought prices were to get to Sanur. Long story a little shorter, he gave me a ride to Sanur for 50k on his motorbike. It was a pretty damn exciting ride, made more exciting by the lunatics on Balinese roads - motorbikes are used in order that drivers might cheat the traffic, winding in and out of the queuing cars, regardless of lanes, pavements or in coming traffic. The stop for petrol was pretty great too as you simply pay for a couple of glass bottles (frequently old Absolut vodka bottles which amused me no end) of amber liquid petrol and pour them in the bike. Anyway, the most important thing, for Mum and Dad at least, is that I got to Sanur without incident and was dropped off at the beach so that I might find my guest house, Flashbacks.

For anyone heading to Sanur, I would wholeheartedly recommend Flashbacks. While not as cheap as a homestay, at 186k per night for their cheapest room, I thought it was incredibly good value for money. I had my own room with a double bed, my own shower and a toilet I shared with I think one or two other guests. It was lovely to sink into clean sheets in my big bed surrounded by a mosquito net hanging. There was also a desk, clean fresh towels and a safe for my valuables. To be honest, if they had had space I would certainly have splashed out and stayed all four nights here. After a big Indonesian lunch, I sank into the luxury of my room, having found my bag delivered by the airport, and was simply content to do little things like read and sew and relax before falling into the first unworried full night's sleep I have had in a while.

After my breakfast of fruit and toast (included in the price of the room!) I headed out on my first taxi tour. The first stop was Balinese dancing in Batubulan where I watched from the front row. The Barong Kris dance was more of a play than simply a dance and it was full of colour, great costumes and comedy. It opened with the dance of the barong, a good spirit, and his friend the monkey, before following the mischief of a rangda, a bad spirit, with both men and gods. It is, I was later told, a fairly typical story of yin and yang or good vs evil. It was slightly unclear to me, however, whether the barong triumphed or not against the rangda as the ending was marked with a long fight of many men aiding the barong but slain one by one. After the barong revived them, they then each seem to take their own lives. Bizarre. But really enjoyable display of traditional dance - the women's stiff synchronised movements, including, eerily, their eye movements, perhaps the most impressive part.

Next was the temple ('pura') of Batuan, my first to wander around. I donned my sarong for a donation and entered peace and tranquility that astounded me with the proximity to the road. Over 80% of Bali is Hindu and the evidence of this is everywhere: many buildings have small shrines at their front and prayer boxes, containing small offerings of flowers and sometimes food, are seen afresh everyday at entrances and strapped to bikes or placed on car windscreens. Every home has a family temple which is used for everyday rituals while the big village temples are for special occasions, like the full moon or temple birthday, and funeral remembrance ceremonies. While ancient places, they still pulse with quiet life. In Batuan, I was amazed by the fish in the ponds and even very small ones living in bird bath size pools that housed purple lilies and water snails. The green turf stripes of the temple grounds and the brightly painted wooden panels depicting gods showed the place to be very well cared for. After Australia where so much was new and shiny, it was a relief for me to be surrounded by old stone, history carved into it with ornate motifs, gods and protective gargoyles. And unlike London where much that is old is now being discarded (you only have to look to the East end, the contrast of Shoreditch with the City skyscrapers looming behind dilapidated pubs), these temples are sacred and loved. Looking back on this short visit and writing about it, I am actually surprised to realise the full extent of the peace I felt there.

I am really starting to sound like a damn hippy.

The next few stops were interesting but made me feel somewhat like my driver considered me only as a cash cow. First, there was a silver shop where I learnt a bit about the production of jewellery before moving onto an artist workshop where, more interesting for me, I was taken through some of the common painting styles and periods in the Balinese style. The Ubud style, a fusion of traditional Balinese and Western skills, was my favourite. It was, however, the ridiculously priced restaurant I was taken to that actually pissed me off - 70k for nasi goreng (fried rice, one of the simplest and usually cheapest meals you can get) which is basically the price you'd pay in Sydney.

I abruptly left after that discovery on the menu and we moved on to the next temple, Goa Gajah - of the Elephant Cave. With absolutely no elephants in the vicinity. It was named as such after the river running in the valley a little further down. A big river deserves a big name and so was called the elephant river and subsequently so was the temple. It is a special sight for two reasons: firstly the spring water found here which is said to bring you luck if you wash your face and hands in it and secondly the man-made cave for meditation guarded at its entrance by an impressive wall of carving. The security god Boma guards the entrance, surrounded by scenes of the jungle, now hard to pick out after a millennium of wear from the elements. It has probably been preserved somewhat better than it might have been thanks to an earthquake that buried the whole temple - it was only discovered by a Dutch archeology team in the 1920s. While the pool for the spring water and the cave were still intact, the temple itself has only been salvaged in pieces, stacked on its former site. Interestingly, there is a neighbouring Buddhist temple a short walk away in the same valley. Rather than rivalry between the religions, I was told that they would have offered support to one another in past times and would have been very happy neighbours.

Another drive and another temple and another cave, this time a natural one home to around a million fruit bats. Goa Lawah actually has two parts. The first, that I was permitted to see, outside, comprising of silted huts with layered thatch roofs and more ornate stone carved gateways. The second part, reserved for practising Hindus, is inside the cave, amongst the bats hanging upside down, absolutely covering the ceiling. The very reason for this temple is the natural holy aura of the place, as my guide explained, and exemplified by the presence of the bat colony. It would seem that Balinese Hinduism looks to nature rather than the convenience of man to decide where temples are appropriate.

We took the coastal road back to Sanur, stopping only for some satay fish from a street stall - at just 10k and no subsequent tummy trouble for it, this was a pretty good meal. Looking to the sky, I admired the kites dotting the blue as I had already done a million times. During the dry season, the winds pick up and Balinese children (and adults) love to fly kites. According to Lonely Planet this has some ancient roots in the idea of whispering to the gods but according to every local I asked, it is simply for fun. Regardless of the reason, I adored watching these kites of all sizes, shapes and colours, my favourites the birds. Some soared to impressive heights, gliding and hovering quite placidly while children would have theirs swoop and dance somewhat closer to the ground. I could always see a few in the distance, pretty much anywhere I was in Bali, but particularly over Sanur, probably in preparation for the festival of kiting competition happening in August.

Sunset found me clambering through shallow waters and seaweed to reach one of the small man made islands with gorgeous small huts like benches. Unfortunately, I stumbled on my way back to shore and trod on something less than friendly. Reaching the beach, my foot definitely going numb, I approached the first Balinese person I saw to ask for help. After pointing at my foot, I was told by the beach barista to stay where I was while he dashed off leaving me with no explanation and the seeds of panic growing in me. I was informed that I had been stung by 'bulu babi' or sea urchin. I did not have any of its spines poking out of me, fortunately, but little liquid spears of poison had been injected into my foot leaving it numb. The traditional method of cure, which this well meaning barista began on my foot, is hitting the affected area so as to break up the poison and encourage the puncture holes to bleed to get rid of the toxins. He used a coffee stomper, I gritted my teeth and managed not to cry. When the blood failed to run, we concluded it might be time to head to a clinic. He shut up shop and a nice couple who had been helping me (googling what to do) drove me to the clinic. For 200k all I got was my foot doused with antiseptic and ammonia before being dressed to keep the sand out. So basically I paid for my foot to smell like pee. It was a relief to find out that I wouldn't die, in fact wasn't ever at risk of that, and didn't even suffer the fever I was warned I would get. Or maybe it was hot enough that I didn't notice anyway! To say thank you for the help and driving me back to Flashbacks on his motorbike, I took the barista, Jun, out for a beer and got to taste my first Bintang and learn a little about Bali from the perspective of someone my own age and not trying to sell me anything. He is a young man full of ambition and energy but, refreshingly and unlike myself, with little drive to escape his home in Bali. Having experienced the truly bustling city of Jakarta, I think his only trip outside of Bali, he could appreciate what he has on the island and wants to make all of that - his business of owning a boutique selling football gear as well as his cafe job - work.

Wanting to rest after my mini drama, I was again in bed early. It did mean I managed to rise early enough to see the sun start its ascent for the day from the beach. I then had to start packing my stuff and went in search of a homestay, finding one for 120k per night just down the road. The room smelt quite strongly of moth balls and the drains reeked in the bathroom but it was my own space and breakfast was again included. To be honest, I think I will probably stay in far worse places yet on the trip through Laos-Thailand.

I headed to Ubud on this day to see the monkey forest with my new friend Jun. I had a couple of close encounters with the buggers as one jumped on my shoulder and another bit my arm (thankfully not breaking the skin but I doused the area in hand sanitiser regardless) even despite the fact I had no food! I managed to successfully guard my bag too that they tried to get into. Jun, quick with his rather nice SLR camera, managed to capture these incidents for your later amusement on facebook. We then wandered around the labyrinth market, laughing at the bizarre carved wooden penis bottle openers and keyrings, before settling down to lunch at a 'babi guling' restaurant - suckling pig, a specialty usually reserved for celebrations but available all the time here. We got a selection of different parts of the pig; some expert crackling, unidentifiable crunchy bits, nice slices of usual looking pork and some spicy black pudding sausage served with rice. It was all delicious! And the first pork I have had in months of vegetarianism.

After seeing some rice paddies farmed on terraces shaping the hillsides (and Jun laughing at me no end for taking photos of a landscape that is utterly banal to him), we headed south. We stopped in Denpasar, the capital, to visit Jun's shop and for him to speak to a supplier before heading on to Nusa Dua for sunset and watching a water blow. Away from the grand hotel resorts and private beaches, I got to see a small square in Nusa Dua where Balinese people rather than tourists frequent and where Jun's (or, more likely, I suspected, his family's) second shop was situated. I met his mum and scared his small nephew who was not a fan of my white face, even if it was smiling. We finished the day with delicious barbecued fish, rice, a chilli-tomato-lime salsa and some fried chicken from a stall on the side of the road. It consisted of a few tables, a roof, a small temporary kitchen, make shift barbecues and no walls. The discrete stares I got convinced me that this was truly a bit of regular Balinese life and probably not something many tourists got to experience. The food was fresh, hot, incredibly tasty and not too difficult to eat with my fingers. Jun dropped me back at my homestay and I gratefully got into bed, falling asleep with the light on before 10pm.

My next day was somewhat more relaxed - partly because I wanted to have some down time enjoying the beach but also because transport and entry costs were mounting up. So I quite lazily lay in the sun and read my trashy thriller book. I had lunch and then later rosella tea (a beautiful pink flower that provides a tangy-sweet refreshing drink) and finally dinner at a lovely little restaurant called Warung Little Bird. It was entirely run by fashionably dressed young Balinese guys who were relaxed and seemed to have fun working together - more like it was a joint project between friends than a strictly run business with employer and employees. The food was pretty good too. I was about to finally leave when the acoustic session started with one of the guys playing 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' so instead I moved to the bar to enjoy the music and got chatting to a couple of American girls. It was a lovely last evening on the island and a full moon to boot. Although in quiet Sanur, the festivities were over pretty early and we could only find an expensive bar to move on to whose main attraction was the Indonesians performing karaoke with a live band backing. Although a bit later, I was still asleep by 11.30pm after the excitement of one beer.

For my final day, there was one temple that I quite desperately had to see (well, actually two but Tanah Lot was a bit out of the way since I needed to be in the airport by 8pm) so I negotiated another taxi ride with a very nice driver. He even paid for my entry to walk around a mangrove protection area! I also got to see a couple of the southern beaches. Padang Padang, nestling between huge rocks and at the base of a big cliff, if it weren't for the loud obnoxious English/Aussie voices, a perfect beach and then we headed to Jimbaran to watch the fishing boats and sunset over the ocean. But before that and my final drive to the airport, I saw Pura Luhur Uluwatu, my favourite temple of all those I viewed. It felt like the ends of the earth, situated high up on the cliff edge, set there to protect the island.

Again, the sense of peace and stillness, even in spite of the hundreds of tourists, descended on me. To feel that contentment, to feel the wind and just sit, was a pleasant surprise for me. It was like salve for the hurt of leaving Sydney, uprooting my life again but residing in limbo of travel rather than running to my other home to heal and get on with reality. As much as living on the move is exciting, feeding the explorer in me with daily doses of novelty, there is another part of me that is tired of looking after myself as I have done for the past year without much respite. I know that I have to encourage my inner adventurer, though, before I get back to the safety and comfort of the UK. I always remind myself of a favourite line from the prophet when I find myself tired of the challenge I've presented myself:

"Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral."

 And so I will end this thoughtful twist of an ending (probably induced by listening to 'Like a rolling stone' by Bob Dylan) by saying that I am happy and excited about my further travels as well as being grateful for the thought of home and family at the end of them. Now reunited with Lorna I know that we have an obscene amount of fun and laughter ahead of us.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Uluru and Beyond

I had been given mixed reviews about Uluru, in the heart of Australia's centre. All I will say on the matter is that, too me, it was much more than just a big rock. Ever since I was a little girl and had an Australian kindergarten teacher, my image of this vast country, that is really focused on the coast in reality, was the outback and Ayers Rock at the heart of it. So to finally see that semi-arid area (not, in fact, desert I discovered) and the rock for myself, it was a big deal.

Here's my beautifully organised trip (sometimes it just easier to go with a tour):

Day 1

I was picked up while it was still dark at 5.45am from my hostel in order to begin the long drive out of Alice Springs and toward Kings Canyon, our first stop. On the way, we learned the story of the camel in the outback: Afghan cameleers brought them in order to better cross the harsh terrain of Australia's middle and then later to build both the telegraph line and the railway. By the 1930s, however, the camel had largely helped itself out of being useful. Instead of deporting these newcomers like the Australian government does today when you stop serving a useful function, the camels were released to the wild. Unbelievably, they have flourished and there are now over 500,000 feral camels running around the bush. When we stopped at a camel farm, I felt fully obliged to complete this ridiculous story with a short ride on one of the creatures. It was bumpy.

From there we drove on fairly consistently, stopping only for petrol, toilet breaks (including one at Erldunda, the closest you can get to the geographical centre of Aus) and lunch before we arrived at Kings Canyon. It was a fairly sedate 6km walk where we learned a bit about bush medicine and the local flora. It turns out there are more species of acacia than eucalypt in Aus! Perhaps the most beautiful part of the walk was the descent into the Garden of Eden, so called as water has been trapped in one of the crevasses leading to a flourishing of life - tall trees and shrubs galore. It felt a little bit like Jurassic Park. We made it back up onto the plateau for sunset and watched the rock light up red and then fade as the sun sunk below the far off horizon over endless flat plains. Everything seemed a little rose tinged as we descended for the last time to get back on the bus and head to camp.

Dinner and camp was an effort of pooled energy in the group. We had a simple dinner of spag bol, got a shower, lit a fire (which I later maintained for a good while, dancing around it like a pyro-pixie, red faced but certainly not cold in the below 0 temperature) and set up our swags for the night. A swag is pretty much a big bag with a thin mattress fixed to its bottom that you, wrapped in your sleeping bag, lie in and zip up and pull a flap over your head. I had quite a warm night's sleep in the end and got to enjoy the stars before I finally gave in to my drooping eyes.

Day 2

After another early rise, we made it on our way to Uluru, another fair drive away. On the road we were met by the sight of Mount Conner, dubbed 'Fooluru' by tour guides for its superficial resemblance to the real thing. Once you have seen Uluru, however, it's easy to tell the difference between the former, a table top mountain, and the latter, the world's biggest monolith (I think it is anyway). On the other side, there was Lake Amadeus, a vast and eerie looking salt lake.

We finally saw Uluru from the bus emerging over a sand dune. After some silly pictures at the campsite lookout, we made our way to the cultural centre to learn more about the Anangu people and why we shouldn't climb the rock. And, perhaps a little out of understanding and respect but also peer pressure and guilt, I did not climb the rock. I did however walk its base, or at least 3/4 of its 10km. On the way, we were told some of the stories of how the Anangu people believe Uluru was shaped by their ancestral beings, giant animals of the bush in the Dreamtime, and the morals attached to them. Aside from feeling super gap yah and socially, culturally, politcally awaaare, it was actually just nice to hear exactly why the rock is so special, even if those stories are not mine.

It was soon time to join the circus gathering at the sunset viewing spot so that we might experience the (in)famous changing colours of Uluru. Again this was something I was prepared to be disappointed by from other travellers' stories. Maybe it was that mindset or maybe it just is one of those sights for me, but I was certainly not diappointed. As the light fell lower and lower in the sky, the rock really did grow redder and its lines, scars from the ancestral beings if you will, became more defined. As the sun finally disappeared, the horizon was coloured bright blue, with pink-purple haze above it and crowned by the dying day-time sky. It was a stunning sight.

Camp that night was much the same as the previous night. It may have been a budget trip but this is some of the most comfortable camping I have ever done - toaster and kettle for breakfast, as well as hot showers! Dinner was a little more exciting with camel sausages and kangaroo steaks. I must admit, camel sausages were weird!

Day 3

An even earlier start to this morning - so early, in fact, it was actually still nighttime with the stars out in full force at 5am. We were up to see the sun rise over the horizon next to Uluru and watch the colours of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) light up. This is probably the point I got closest to crying; it's definitely one of the most impressive sunrises I've seen in my life. Simply stunning. I will try and upload a photo at a later date since words won't do it justice.

After my emotional dawn, we set out to Kata Tjuta (meaning Many Heads because of its bizarre protruding humps of conglomerate rock sticking out at angles) for the Valley of the Winds walk. According to our guide, this place is so sacred to the Anangu that they refuse to tell us any stories at all of the place. To this day, they still go there to perform ceremonies for their young men. We managed the full circuit of 7.4km which, while easy at first, was no mean feat by the time we finished at 11am and the sun had really gotten up and into its role of a giant heater. A short but well deserved lunch looking up at the strange tall rocks marked the end of the trip. We piled into the van for a few dropoffs and finally the 4 1/2 hour drive back to Alice Springs.

The following morning I actually managed to make it to the airport on time for my flight. After evident enthusiasm about looking out the window, the poor man next to me offered to swap seats, probably so I would stop breathing down his neck. I made it to Perth and killed my 10 hours wandering around the city and, as per usual, getting a little lost, this time in Kings Park trying to see the sunset but hampered by the trees.

Then on to Bali where I am writing this blog from. I arrived 2am yesterday to discover my backpack still in Perth (in the best case scenario) but I managed to get myself safely through the first taxi price negotiation and up to Seminyak-Kuta and my hostel. I had to wake the 24 hour receptionist up from the couch but other than that and my missing backpack, things are going well here! Now to explore, debate buying fresh clothes, and then head to Sanur for the next two nights. I certainly live in exciting times.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Getting to the Ghan

The 24th of June turned out to be an interesting day. The first half of it, however, I wish never to repeat. But, as I wrote in my journal with delicious relief in the aftermath, it did make everything a bit more of an adventure.

In short, I woke up at 6.45am, exactly as my plane was taking off. Without me.

In my defence, I had a fairly heart-breaking day on the 23rd of June which might go some way to explaining how I could have slept in. The exam I had that afternoon was a mess (due to a typo that said do 4 instead of 2 questions, now thankfully resolved so that it doesn't matter whether we did 2 or 4), I left my favourite scarf in the exam room, got lost coming out of the racecourse and then spent the best part of my evening literally running around Kensington to say goodbye. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears. Goodbyes don't seem to get any less painful, no matter how many I've had over the years.

Anyway, I was staying at my friend Phil's house as he had generously offered me a lift to the airport. When we woke, stupefied from about an hour's sleep, instant panic hit. Fortunately, while I inexplicably thought getting dressed was the most pressing thing to do, he was more useful and started looking up flights. And I was unbelievably lucky to find that there was another flight to Adelaide that morning, arriving before noon so that I would have time to get my train. And so, although $250 poorer and with a further tear stained face, I made it to Adelaide. Even despite a further delay from the broken toilet on the plane.

After displaying the contents of my bag (colourful undies and all, I am embarrassed to say) to the entire train station trying to dig out my sleeping bag, I was finally ready to board the last carriage of the train - where they keep the cabinless riff raff. With time running low and me having only successfully described my first morning on the road, I think I will borrow the words from my journal itself:

      "The west side of the train reveals some blue sky and more light whereas the east side view, my side, is bleak. Grey. If I am being kind, somewhat atmospheric as the light struggles through in places. Eucalypts, not forests but small thickets, break up the plains."

That was Adelaide and its outskirts, industrial and agricultural. An interaction of nature and man that was not beautiful but for me, still held some appeal. Maybe just as a part of Australia I hadn't seen before - and I could see it right up to the edges of the horizon. But to be fair, the weather did seem to be reflecting my divided mood in thoughts of leaving one home for another, bridging the gap with this travel in limbo.

Of the landscape the following day, in a letter I am writing to a friend:

      "A huge blue sky stretches in a dome over me, decorated only with the sparsest of fluffy white clouds. And travelling through the night, of course I have woken up to a new landscape to ponder on. The land here is similarly flat but there is far less evidence of man aside from the very train I am on. The ground, that has been growing ever more orange ever since I boarded the train, is now the distinctive burnt ochre I had expected... there's a fair amount of coarse vegetation. But most of that grass looks to have been bleached by the sun."

If it weren't for the occasional eucalypt and slightly lighter shade of soil and the wild emus and galahs, it almost could have been the African savannah.