Malaka: A melting pot of people and places


In my last blog, Soaking up the Kuala culture, I marveled over the Malaysian capital’s multiculturalism and its thriving Indian and Chinese communities. And I’m not done gushing just yet. With time to kill waiting for my friend to catch me up from Thailand, I decided to head down to a small town I’d heard about, Melaka. With no huge expectations and after a sweaty two-hour bus ride, I was immediately  charmed by the small UNESCO Heritage City and its traditional fixtures and buildings. For anyone whose been to Luang Prabang in Laos or Hoi An in Vietnam, it’s a very similar vibe – think low rise, shabby-chic buildings with European features and an eclectic mix of jewellery, nik naks and quietly buzzing eateries. Add a scoop of gelato and you could almost be in an idyllic Italian village enjoying a far quieter pace of life than I’d been experiencing in hectic Kuala Lumper.

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One of the pretty, traditional buildings in Melaka town

Melaka’s European influences came from the invasion of the British (I’ve yet to find somewhere we didn’t invade – soz all), after the initial invasion of the Portuguese in 1511, when Alfonso de Albuquerque set sail from Goa to capture Malaysia – meaning both Portuguese and Indian influences can be found in the city. The Portuguese were thrown out by the Dutch in 1641 who proceeded to rule Malaka for the next century and a half; setting up Dutch squares, cathedrals and windmills which are now some of the city’s most popular sights. After 1826, the British took over the domineering of sleepy Malaka and even Japan popped by to rule for a couple of years in the forties.

So Melaka has only been independent for 70 years but in that time tourism has boomed and a charming town like no other has risen from the ashes of its many invaders. Interestingly, the most noticeable influence is an oriental one, with Chinese temples nestled among the European architecture and lanterns lining the winding streets. One of my favourite things I did in Melaka was visit the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum which explores the customs and ceremonies of Chinese culture through the jewellery and artifacts left behind. Adorned with crowns and jewels, young people of the time would marry in arranged ceremonies to partners two years older or younger – 16-year-old girls would marry 18-year-old boys; 18-year-old females would marry 20-year-old males; and 20-year-old females wouldn’t marry at all as apparently by then they’d be deemed old maids. Around the ankles girls would wear thick gold rings to demonstrate that they were single, which would be removed only after marriage.

Thick, gold anklets to be removed after marriage

As well as jewellery, we saw intricately decorated shoes – which would apparently take two to three months to make and could be decorated with up to 1,900 beads per pair. The art of embroidery was seen as crucial to a lady’s development and those without the skills could be seen as unsuitable for marriage and also end up as old maids (the ultimate punishment apparently).

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A shoe intricately embroidered with hundreds of beads

Other artifacts on show included cabinets and dressers built to show their blended heritage – one particular piece was built with intricate columns to show its British roots; detailed carvings in Malay style; and small Chinese dragons.

 

British pillars, Malay Carvings and Chinese dragons on this period cabinet

Up the road at the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum I learnt more about the customs of the time period by exploring an old-fashioned house, preserved exactly as it had been 150 years earlier. Again, we learnt about life and rituals such as the marriage ceremony, in particular the preparation for the first born child. Traditionally, a cage containing a rooster and a hen was placed under the bed and the morning after the wedding night, the first bird to emerge when the cage was opened would determine the gender of the couple’s first child. I did ask how accurate the birds tended to be, but was told it was just a tradition (so presumably 50/50?)

 

A (plastic) rooster and hen, representing the ancient Chinese tradition

Aside from dreaming of oriental times gone by, there’s plenty more to do and see in Melaka, and I took to a pedal bike to navigate the busy Jonkers Street where the weekend market doles out souvenirs, gadgets and Malaysian food galore, mainly on sticks. Quails eggs, fried potatoes, jelly fruits – if you’ve not seen them on a stick before, you will in Melaka.

I pedalled towards the Dutch Square where the red stone sets the area apart from the rest of the city. Christ Church Cathedral rests in the centre of the European-style square and even a windmill joins the mix – authentic or an ode to the history, I’m not entirely sure. Nearby, I climbed St Peter’s Hill, admired the white chapel of the same name, and looked out over Melaka sprawling all the way to the ocean.

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An example of Malaka’s European influence, St. Peter’s Church

But back to my favourite topic – food. Melaka is famed for its stingray so I decided it deserved a try. I love all types of seafood and imagined it to taste a bit like squid. Someone who’d already tried it told me, no, it was meatier and tasted like beef. When I relayed this to another stingray connoisseur, they disagreed again saying my first guess was probably closer to the reality – so clearly trying it for myself was the only way to find out. My stingray, served in silver foil and cooked in front of me, was flavoured with a rich, spicy sauce full of lemongrass and okra (a green vegetable similar to courgette and often called ‘ladyfingers’ on menus). This would have made anything taste good, but the stingray itself was pretty tasty; a meaty, white fish which I can’t exactly compare to anything else with hardly any bones.

The stingray set me back 25 ringgits (£4), which must be because it’s a delicacy – I had to remind myself that that wasn’t actually expensive and would barely buy me a Tesco’s sandwich at home. For lunch the next day, a group of us ventured to Little India to see what one of the region’s biggest ethnic groups were eating. The place we found looked like a cake shop from the front but had a basic back room in which a banana leaf was placed in front of each of us and curry of the day (chicken biryani) was scoped on to it, alongside a selection of mango and radish dips, a poppadom and a lassi on the side. This cost approximately £1 – not only was this a complete bargain, I successfully reaffirmed my love affair with Indian cuisine; something that has begun to turn my stomach after a solid month of eating nothing else at the beginning of my travels.

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Our curry feast in Little India

So my lesson of the day – eat as the locals do and you’ll have money to spare and be full of chicken biryani. Oh, and lesson number two – if you’re ever in Malaysia, visit Melaka. It’s beautiful. If you needed any more encouragement, people (predominately Chinese tourists) get about in Hello Kitty themed trishaws blasting cheesy techno music. And you would get to look at them and laugh, OR join them – and laugh. Your options are endless.

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Soaking up the Kuala culture…

I love it when you arrive somewhere and it’s not what you expected. I didn’t do a lot of research on Kuala Lumpur before arriving – either due to lack of time or in the hope of arriving somewhere spontaneously (or as spontaneously as you can when you booked the flights months go) and feeling surprised by it. Sometimes traveling in backpacker-friendly countries can become all too easy: tourist buses pick you up from your hostel; tours take you door to door; and everyone, from waiters to the man on the street, speaks English. Not knowing what to expect increases adventure factor for sure.

Having heard a lot about wealthy and Western Singapore but less about Kuala Lumpur, I’d presumed the two biggest Malaysian cities would be fairly similar and was expecting something not too dissimilar out of KL. I arrived bleary-eyed and sleep deprived after a boozy few weeks in Thailand and found it fairly far from my expectations.

It’s not to say that I disliked Kuala Lumpur on first impression but it’s not exactly clean, smog-free or super safe. The sweeter people around South East Asian seem replaced in some areas by a male-dominated and harder faced crowd, and you have the feeling you’d be wise to keep your belongings close to you. Signs in the hostel reinforced this but were warnings that fell on already the well-aware ears of those who’ve ventured around the neighbourhood. Saying that, I had no bad experiences in Kuala Lumpur despite the slightly more run down feel in some areas, and its a city that’s fascinating to explore a cultural perspective.

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One of the city’s many impressive Chinese temples

What is ‘Malaysian’? I have to say I don’t have the clearest idea yet. Of my explorations around Kuala Lumpur, I’ve found four main themes and all of them seem borrowed from other home cultures. The first I was expecting – Chinese. With 24% of the Malaysian population of Chinese origin, oriental roots are well established in the country’s heritage, and visible in KL’s heaving Chinatown. Lantern-lined streets and bubbling food courts are scattered among more modern influences like street traders attempting to flog everything from fake Ray Bans to fake Michael Kors bags (to cut a long story short – anything fake). Whilst wandering Chinatown, I admired the gleaming red and gold Chinese temples dotted around the urban streets, which add a little traditional charm to the otherwise modern city centre. The slowly-rising incense burning at many of them drifts upwards creating a sleepy haze through which the bustling streets and open-fronted kitchen seem to move slower, quieter somehow. One particular food court in the district dished out authentic Chinese food (none of the sweet and sour chicken we get at home) – everything from pork ribs and spicy rice cooked in clay pots, to fresh fish baked in foil, and endless vats of meat and vegetable noodles. Price-wise, you’re looking at around £2 for dinner including an icy beer or fresh fruit shake.

I was less aware of the booming Indian population living in Kuala Lumpur, and as I’d started my trip six months earlier in the crazy yet colourful country, this came as a pleasant surprise. ‘Little India’ didn’t have any major sightseeing claims but it was an interesting place to soak up the sights and sounds, and dig into a hearty curry. During a trip to the famous Batu Caves, I found the streets lined with stalls of Punjabi sweets from sticky jalebi to coconut candy. Nostalgic for my India days, I took the time to find the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, a classic Hindu place of worship. The colourful temple was steep and adorned with carved scenes of daily life: horses, carts, gods, people and of course, the holiest of all – the cow. Inside, women in mesmerizing sarees walked barefoot across the marble floor and a recent wedding left behind sunny yellow flowers strewn across it. The most authentic display of Indian life I’ve seen out of the country itself, I realised one day I’ll have to go back to India to feel the warmth of the culture all over again.

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The Sri Mahamariamman Temple close to Kuala Lumper city centre

The impressive gilded mosques in Kuala Lumpur form a third dimension to the multicultural nature of the city. 61% of the population are of Islamic faith and even the oldest places of worship are kept as new and well-maintained as if they were built yesterday. The Masjid Jamek Mosque and Merdeka Square are prime places to see this kind of architecture – though it seems bizarre to think the oh-so-different Indian temples and Chinatown are just a few streets away.

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The gleaming mosque in Merdeka Square

The final type of influence in Kuala Lumpur is that of more glamorous, Western pursuits. Most impressive are the 1,483ft tall Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest set of twin towers – and between 1998 and 2004, the planet’s tallest buildings full stop. They may have had their crown stolen since by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and Tokyo’s Skytree, but I still think they’re pretty cool. Standing at the base and gawping upwards, I felt like I could be in New York, Chicago or any Western metropolis. But Asia? It’s safe to say that Malaysia has a glamorous and urban downtown that can’t be rivaled by its dusty Asian neighbours, such as Cambodia and Laos. There’s also the KL Tower which was purpose-built for radio and television broadcasting but also provides a 360-degree view of the city for visitors. Standing at 1,099ft, there’s an observation deck, mini zoo and aquarium, and weird people use it to do base jumping (from what I gather – they just throw themselves off and hope for the best. For fun.)

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The 1,483ft tall Petronas Towers

Finally on the theme of extravagant Western inventions, there’s the glamorous Magnum shop at the Mid Valley Mega Mall. Reeking over an overzealous London pop-up, the modern and slightly unnecessary store lets guests design their own Magnum, choose the colour, flavour and customise their ice cream with anything from edible gold nuggets to goji berries, mini marshmallows, crystallized mango, popcorn and even edible rose petals. But I don’t know why I’m being sceptical. I was the least sceptical person in the place when slathering my vanilla Magnum in liquid dark chocolate, adorning it with gold nuggets and mango, and completing the diabetes-inducing snack with a drizzle of white chocolate. I also got two trains and two buses just to visit the store. Yes, no scepticism from me… I love the local culture but I also love snazzy ice creams. And gold nuggets.

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My delicious yet calorific creation

An appetite for Asia

Southeast Asia is good for many things – beaches, parties and markets to name a few, and while I’m a fan of all three, there’s something I like even more. Eating. I regularly disgust my best friend (who is a vegetarian) by sending her photos of my lunch, which more often that not has legs, tentacles or wings. Recent Snapchats have included octopus curry, sea snails and bottomless buckets of KFC. I suddenly realise I am making myself sound like a bully (is it ok to taunt vegetarians with pictures of animal carcass? Let’s not discuss), but my point is that I tend to try anything and everything – the more unusual the cuisine, the better. I may not jump out of planes or hire motorcycles but what I lack in adrenaline, I make up for at the local market.

Before travelling to Asia, I had a limited understanding of what Asian food entailed. Vague notions of Chinese and Indian takeaways were probably the closest I’d come, and it turns out bhunas and black bean chicken are more a creation by the West (packed full of extra cream and MSG to keep us coming back for more) than an authentic representation of what people in Asia eat on a daily basis. I’d had the odd taste of Thai before, and enjoyed a green curry and portion of Pad Thai from time to time, but when it came to other Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, I was clueless (apart from having heard of a noodle soup called ‘Pho’). The UK definitely isn’t the best for Asian cuisine. Whilst in Vietnam, plenty of the Australians I met were well-versed in the food, having already had it at home, but I’d never really tried it before my trip. People have now informed me that actually London has a whole street in Shoreditch churning out Vietnamese cuisine, which I didn’t know about whilst I Iived there (isn’t that always the way?) – but it’s safe to say the smaller towns and cities in the country aren’t home to much of it. Location-wise, we couldn’t be much further away from Vietnam, and perhaps ex-pats favour the sunny shores of Australia over our rainy ones (I can’t think why) therefore leaving us lacking authentic Asian eateries. So with only the most basic knowledge and an appetite to explore, I decided a range of cooking classes during my travels would be a great way to expand my horizons and satisfy my stomach.

I began my Southeast Asian adventure in Laos. Famed for its tubing and trekking, the cuisine takes a backseat. Like much of Asia, noodles and rice are at the base of many of the meals, but there are a few staple dishes native to Laos that are more than worth a try. I took to the kitchen at Tamnak Lao Cooking School where that particular evening I was the only person to sign up for the class – meaning I was tasked with eating all of the five dishes we prepared. A huge ask, but someone had to step up to the job.

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Larp served with lime

The first dish I got to try my hand at creating was Larp – a traditional Laos dish which seems to pass as a salad without actually being heavy on anything healthy (my favourite type of salad). Made mainly with cooked pork; a generous helping of lime juice and a mixture of spices are added for flavour, and the dish is served on a bed of lettuce. The rich taste of the pork contrasts against the tangy citrus for a tasty starter or main meal (or one of your five dinners if you are me).

I also took advantage of the milder flavours used in Laos cooking (none of the tear-inducing Thai food that leaves your tongue on fire) and made a chicken and coconut curry with fresh coconut milk and plenty of veggies. Next, I experienced the country’s love of fish sauce (even if you aren’t aware it’s there, it will be hiding in most of the meals you’re served in Laos for extra flavour) as the chefs helped me whip up a fish soup: generous chunks of fish in a light, water-based broth which was full of flavour thanks to leftover limes and spices –  ingredients I was learning were key in Laos cooking.

Chili paste was another of my tasked dishes to create – and I was surprised that the one we made was flavoursome without actually being spicy. Curry and chili paste are the bases for many dishes in Southeast Asia and are usually made with a Pestle and Mortar, combining garlic, spices, nuts and chili to make a thick paste, which can be served by itself as a dip, or combined with coconut milk or any other thin sauce to expand into the type of curry sauce we know and love. Our paste was bright red and both sweet and salty thanks to a scattering of sugar to counterbalance the saltiness of yet more fish sauce and, as we’d already made a curry earlier, served by itself as an accompaniment to the rest of our food.

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Left to right: A chicken and coconut curry; fish soup; larp; a tomato dip with veg; and chili paste

I couldn’t quite manage everything myself, so my leftovers were donated to the monastery; something I felt good about as the monk’s needs were probably greater than mine (I had had five dinner so most people’s needs were greater than mine). So what was the verdict on Laos cooking? It may not be the world’s most distinctive but with its salty and sweet contrasting flavours, reliance on creamy textures and sharp seasoning, its something I’d eat again. Saying that, there’s one Laos dish – papaya salad – which is quite unlike its milder sister dishes. I ordered it in a restaurant in expectation of a light, healthy dinner and was surprised to end up abandoning the plate, tears streaming from my eyes. For unsuspecting visitors to Laos – papaya salad is very spicy. Be warned.

A couple of months down the line and I was preparing my frying pan once again, this time at Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour in Hoi An, Vietnam. One of the nicest things about Vietnam, I think, is how easy it is to get involved with the local culture. Especially in bustling Hanoi, there’s far less of a divide between pricey Western restaurants (when I say pricey, I mean a few pounds a meal, which isn’t bank-breaking but is a good five or six times the price of street food) and the local eateries. I sometimes find this divide a challenge – it’s all well and good to try and eat what the locals eat, but when the only menus you can understand, and the only venues with staff who can communicate with you, are the slightly more Western places, it’s so much easier and more convenient to eat at them. In Hanoi’s city centre, the Old Quarter, the street food is plentiful and hundreds of venues happily dole out pho (noodle soup), bun cha (pork with a broth and noodles to dip) and nem (cooked spring rolls, usually full of pork and fish sauce) to name just a few – and it couldn’t be easier to grab a chair and join in.

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Tasty pho (noodle soup) topped with fresh shallots, coriander, chili and spices, served at a street stall in Hanoi

With this in mind, I was looking forward to learning what exactly goes in some of these dishes. The cooking class began with a trip to the local market where our local guide kitted us out with rice hats to shade us from the sun, and woven baskets to collect fresh ingredients. The word ‘fresh’ is thrown around pretty easily when describing food, but it really didn’t get any fresher than our market visit, especially when my basket was packed with live shrimp, still uncomfortably hopping about as we boarded our boat to Thuan Tinh Island to begin cooking.

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Me in my market gear

We started by making a firm Vietnamese favourite of mine, fresh spring rolls. A healthy alternative to the fried spring rolls we associate with Chinese cooking, these sizable rolls are made by rolling prawns (my basket came to good use), cucumber strips, grated carrot and chunks of pork in a sheet of rice paper (a staple Vietnamese ingredient made by pressing grains of rice until they produce milk and cooking the pool of liquid until it solidifies to resemble a rounded sheet of paper).

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A fresh spring roll

Continuing the theme of fresh ingredients, for our next dish we threw together prawns, squid, curls of banana flower, cashews, carrot and salad leaves to make a seafood and banana flower salad. Much lighter than many hot and heavy meals around Asian, Vietnamese food is undoubtedly the healthiest, with many dishes boiled and served in broths, rather than fried in oil. A more healthy take on your usual maple syrup and bacon classic, we also made Vietnamese pancakes or ‘Xoi’. A crispy batter mix is folded over lettuce, prawns and pork (two of the most staple meats used in Vietnamese cooking) for a tasty meal that hits up most of the food groups. The one thing that didn’t change across cultures was the art of flipping the pancake – only one member of the class succeeded in completely missing the pan, but let’s not dwell on who that was.

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Banana flower and seafood salad served with fried rice paper

My final attempt at becoming an Asian chef took place at Mama Noi Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Thai food is probably Southeast Asia’s most famous, and for good reason. Plates of pad Thai for 50p and plentiful red, yellow and green curries are just the beginning, and during my time in Thailand I also came to love Malaysian-inspired Penang curry, creamy potato-based massaman curry and tangy tom yum prawn soup. My friend and I prepared six dishes between us following another market visit and practically had to be rolled home claiming we wouldn’t eat again all day (we did). Highlights included making my own Penang from a chili and garlic-infused curry paste, mixed with coconut milk, peanuts and cashews. I also enjoyed making tom yum – giant, juicy prawns mixed with chili, coconut milk and spices for a dish that’s ever so light and slightly creamy with a real kick to it. Khao soi noodles came towards the end of the class so were hard to make room for but still totally delicious – a classic combining the popular Thai flavour of peanut with crispy fried egg noodles, chicken, shallots and coconut milk.

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A selection of the ingredients (chicken, cashews, fish sauce, shallots and more) I used in the class

It’s hard to pick a favourite from my three cooking classes as despite sharing rice and noodle-based roots, Southeast Asian food differs from country to country and has its own set of flavours and flair depending where you try it. Milder Laos cuisine, fresh and healthy Vietnamese cooking and spicy Thai food are all now on my list to seek out (or make myself with the cookbooks collected from each class) when I get home. I was feeling clued up on the cuisine by the time I arrived in Cambodia so attempted a cocktail-making class instead. There was gin, cucumber, rum, ginger, gin, juice, gin… Did I mention gin? My memory of this particular class is slightly hazy but its safe to say it was enjoyed by all. Cheers!

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A scene from the boozy class…

Volunteering in Vietnam

A hectic metropolis that is less ‘hustle and bustle’ and more a rat race of screeching brakes and a smoky haze of abundant street food, Hanoi is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. Matched in its craziness perhaps only by Delhi, the city is infinitely more ‘liveable’ with enough English spoken and Western influences to give you home comforts if you need them, but enough in the way of local culture that you could spend weeks wandering the crumbling, crazy Old Quarter, and still be enjoyably lost.

The Vietnamese people are indescribable in their friendliness. Relaxing by the sleepy Hoam Kiem lake, smiling and shy students will approach you to attempt to practise their English and quite simply, be your friend. Everyday I’d meet bashful new companions on buses and in cafes who wanted nothing from me but my time, and were in awe of my financial ability to see the world. Local wages will never permit many of them to leave their home country and I’d see their eyes light up when I told them of my adventures whilst travelling.

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A view over Hoam Kiem lake

Working in a local kindergarten for a month, I met an adorable little girl, Bon Bon and her mum, Nga, who took my friends and I under her wing and often took us to museums, restaurants and the quirky, traditional Water Puppet Theatre show that plays out close to the lake. Nga and Bon Bon added a local dimension to my otherwise touristy time in Hanoi, and I loved the experience of getting to know the city as more than a two day whistle stop tour. Travelling to so many destinations on one trip is a great experience but after three months of moving on every few days, staying put and feeling slightly more like a local was exactly what I wanted.

With four weeks in the city, I had time to see the attractions, immerse myself in the culture and even explore the area surrounding Hanoi. The maze of streets that is the Old Quarter is the perfect place to indulge in Vietnamese street food  – a cuisine I’ve never eaten much of before but now is a firm favourite. Balancing opposing flavours such as sweet and spicy or smoky and sharp, foods like mango salted with chilli, and pork flavoured with lime proved to please every time I ventured out for dinner.

Probably Vietnam’s most iconic dish is Pho (pronounced ‘fff’ with no p sound) – essentially noodle soup but with a whole lot of flavour. The broth usually contains plenty of chili and lime and is paired with either ‘bo’ (beef) or ‘ga’ (chicken). Compared to other Asian counties such as India with mainly vegetarian diets, Vietnam is very meat-heavy and I’m not sure how vegetarians get by. My all time favourite street food dish was Bun Cha: a combination of slow cooked pork with an almost sweet-tasting broth and thin rice noodles to dip, which was often served with ‘nem’ (meat spring rolls). Com Tam, a sticky glazed pork fish with rice and a gooey fried egg, was also a winner.

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Bun Cha served with spring rolls and sugarcane juice

While I was tempted to spend all my time in Hanoi eating, there’s plenty more to see and do in the city. One of the most interesting excursions was a trip to the Women’s Museum which offered an interesting insight into the lives of Vietnamese females. Often heartbreaking, the interactive centre told stories of village women who travel to Hanoi to sell goods and often spend weeks away from their families, returning at the end of their exhausting stints with as little as $20. As well as sad stories, the museum boasts exhibitions on traditional women’s dress, elaborate wedding ceremonies and the rituals of childbirth, helping visitors understand the warm and colourful Vietnamese culture. Referencing the war which is so ingrained into the history of the country, I learned about female war heroes, and those executed because of their political activism, many as young as 18. With so much passion and patriotism, the lives of these remarkable women are remembered within the walls of the museum.

Although other Westerners are somewhat a drop in the ocean when mixed among Hanoi’s population of 7 million, a large expat community exists in Vietnam – most of whom are English teachers. With a huge demand for teachers in both state and private schools, as well as kindergartens – a role that requires you to ‘play in English’ rather than really ‘teach’ – there’s plenty of work, providing you have a teaching qualification and are prepared to sign a 6+ month contract. As neither of those things applied to me – I’d never taught a day in my life, let alone taken a qualification, and wanted a new experience whilst backpacking rather than a commitment to a new career – things were a bit more complicated. For short term teaching, unpaid volunteering was undoubtedly easiest. Volunteer companies usually sort out your accommodation in shared apartments, setting you up with an instant friendship group and slot you into a teaching placement, meaning you don’t have to apply for jobs yourself. You tend to have to pay a fee for your food and accommodation. While this is pretty reasonable by Western standards, we quickly realised that with local costs so low, most of what we’d paid was presumably being kept as profit by the company, whilst 18 of us were squeezed into a (very basic) three bedroom apartment.

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My kindergarten class

In terms of our teaching placements, I fell in love with the adorable five year olds I taught, yet in a fairly Western school which was already overstaffed, I felt a little useless. While the ethics of volunteering could fill their own blog, if not a book, the crux is this: When there’s real demand, pay is usually offered for services – but when you pay to work, inevitably companies take on as many of you as possible, meaning there’s often more staff than work to be done. I don’t think its uncommon for volunteering but it is frustrating when you are willing and able to help but the opportunity isn’t there. It’s worth noting that we were working through a Western-based company, so any exploitation was purely from them, rather than the Vietnamese people. Many volunteers were unhappy with the situation, but the friends I made and the time spent with the Vietnamese kids, learning about their lives, more than outweighed any cons.

Like many cities with a large expat population, we found the same people cropped up again and again in the Western hangouts, like the free beer hours that many of Hanoi’s venues host. During one weekend we headed to Quest Festival; an annual music festival offering camping, DJs and arts and experiences such as henna and hypnotist workshops. All the city’s English teachers seemed to be heading there and the week after, the free beer hours were packed with henna-clad Westerners. So even despite the city’s size, a community feel made making friends easy and Hanoi a place I could easily see myself living and working longer term.

At Quest Festival with the other volunteers

One of the perks of Hanoi is its close proximity to once-in-a-lifetime attractions like trekkers’ paradise Sapa and and breathtaking Ha Long Bay. During a long weekend from our placements we took a tour of Ha Long, as well as beautiful Cat Ba Island. A set of almost 2,000 islands in the ocean, the characteristic Ha Long land formations jut high out of the water many meters above sea level. Their dramatic, rugged cliffs make them impossible to explore but wonderful to experience from the deck of a boat. The Ha Long cruises are pretty special. Not especially cheap, most include a night or two aboard a boat, all your meals and excursions like kayaking and exploring caves. Having heard horror stories of rat-infested boats puffing out pollution if you choose a cheaper cruise, we opted for a mid range one with a friendly guide and cosy cabins in the base of the boat where you could watch the islands drift by from your window.

Kayaking was an interesting experience. I was naturally awful at it but having always been awful at anything sporty or practical, this wasn’t an enormous shock. My kayaking partner wasn’t much better (sorry, Lauren) and we were more focused on chatting and admiring the view, meaning the rest of the group left without us and we were nearly lost at sea.

Amidst the inhospitable islands of the bay, Cat Ba Island is cradled. Great for walking, rock climbing and cycling, we explored the untouched side of the island by day and landed at Cat Ba town in the evening. Unique in it’s layout, you approach through Ha Long’s towering cliffs into a harbour dominated by docked boats and floating shops and restaurants. Shoppers and diners explore via a maze of springy rubber walkways which are quite unlike your regular city experience.

The bay at Cat Ba

Thanks to our tour guide we experienced the local side of Cat Ba, from 10p locally brewed ‘fresh beer’ to a dinner of blackened chicken feet and a hot pot we cooked ourselves at the table. Alas, not our favourite meal but certainly an experience we’ll remember.

When my Hanoi month was up, I left with mixed feelings. With so much more of Vietnam to explore – historical Hue, quaint and dreamy Hoi An, countryside Da Lat and  bustling Ho Chi Minh to name a few – I was itching to get on the road but already nostalgic for the city I’d called home for four weeks. From the kind strangers to the atmospheric Old Quarter and the pockets of calm amidst the smoky concrete jungle, there’s a million more nooks and crannies of colourful Hanoi that those left behind have the pleasure of stumbling upon…

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Hanoi lit up at night

 

 

 

 

Discovering Myanmar

A fascinating country well off the beaten track, I knew Myanmar (once called Burma) would be entirely different to the rest of my trip.

For starters, the borders of Myanmar have only been open to visitors since 2012 – before then, the country was run by a military dictatorship, under which residents couldn’t leave, and even cars and mobile phones were banned in an attempt to stop the spread of communication and information and therefore, rebellion. Since the fall of that government and the opening of the borders, tourists have become welcome and Myanmar is known as a safe, not to mention breathtaking, place to travel. Missing are many of the things present in its South East Asian neighbours – backpacker bars, cheap alcohol, Western restaurants and rowdy, young travellers. In Myanmar you don’t see Westerners spilling out of the bars in their bikinis, filling up on burgers and cocktails, nor do you see tourism offices and English signs wherever you go.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those things – I’ll be spending the next four months in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand so it goes without saying I’ll be indulging in many a cheeseburger and round of shots. Wherever you go, in Asia and other continents for that matter, it’s hard to find yourself in a place unaffected by the West. I like gazing at a temple I haven’t seen hundreds of times in other’s Facebook photos; and I like looking around when on the other side of the world and not realising everyone around me is from a 500 mile radius of where I live back home. There really couldn’t better time to visit Myanmar than now. A Starbucks-free nation until 2013, it’s a wonder it held out for so long. The one set back is that the accommodation market hasn’t caught up with the recent influx in tourism so cheap and cheerful hostels are a no no. Guest houses and hotels are the only way to go and, as I was travelling alone and had no one to split the cost of a room with, I had to budget more for accommodation in Myanmar than anywhere else. However, the cheapness of the street food and lack of overpriced, touristy restaurants evened everything out.

In five years, Myanmar could be the next Thailand but for now, it’s unexplored, untouched and truly magical. It’s also one of those places where there are so many must-sees and must-dos, spanning an enormous variety. There are teeming cities, ancient temple towns, countryside treks and floating lake communities on offer, so you leaving feeling as if you’ve really seen it all, and nothing feels repetitive (you do see a lot of temples but you’re in Asia so this really goes without saying).

Yangon, the capital, definitely qualifies as a must-see, with the Shwedagon Pagoda’s 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies topping it’s already impressive golden dome; the Reclining Buddha’s impressive stance; and the Kandawgyi Lake’s giant swan-driven Karaweik sculpture. Just wandering Yangon’s vibrant market streets and joining in the endless tea parties on every corner is a highlight in itself. When I first arrived and saw the sprawling plastic child-sized chairs and tables, I thought they were people’s friends and families eating outdoors rather than restaurants for the public. There were no menus, no waiters and no one spoke English so I was hesitant to join in. I eased myself in gently, sitting at a quieter stall by the city’s old colonial buildings and ordering coffee. Once I’d succeeded in communicating and ordering, I moved on and the next day at lunchtime, plonked myself down at a street buffet where, although no one understood me, I was served rice and helped myself to various bowls of meat, veg and spice. You can’t get away with being a fussy eater here as you’re served what’s on offer, and there’s certainly no option to place an order. But the food was always delicious and never cost more than the equivalent of 50p for a whole meal. I don’t think I ate in a restaurant the whole time I was in Myanmar.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

Foodies also shouldn’t miss 19th Street in Yangon’s Chinatown where fresh meat, fish and veg is barbecued on skewers and served on the familiar plastic tables. I ordered an entire fish with fresh vegetables, and washed down the charcoal taste with a cold beer – it didn’t set me back more than £2.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

Then there’s Bagan. There might be nowhere quite like Bagan. Famed for its 2,000 plus temples dating back to the 9th century, the only thing to do in the ancient city is cycle the rolling plains from temple to temple. Find vantage points for sunset and sunrise and you’ll see the variety of temples, of all shapes and sizes, stretching as far as the eye can see. That’s not to say Bagan was a walk in the park. Not being confident on a scooter, I battled with a push bike and subsequently found myself pedalling uphill in 35 degree heat, devoid of all shade over relentlessly long days. Even with copious amounts of water and sun cream, sunstroke and exhaustion were relatively unavoidable. Even the locals were telling me to go indoors – and when locals express concern, you know it’s serious business. It was all worth it though. Also I had an infinity pool at my hotel (my one respite from backpacker life – thank  God for Myanmar’s lack of hostels) so lying beside it with a cocktail was almost as exciting as Bagan itself. In the end, I had the choice between one more temple/bike stint and a Mojito-infused afternoon, and it’s obvious which won.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

Another activity I packed into my 13-day Myanmar trip was the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek. Small town Kalaw doesn’t offer much, but it is a great starting point for which to trek with a group through paddy fields, tea plantations, mountain ranges and forests, ending up at lakeside town, Nyuang Shwe. I trekked with a company called Sam’s Family who charged less than £20 for a three day trek and covered two night’s accomodation in local homestays, all your meals and the services of a tour guide and chef. Woes came in the form of excruciating blisters and (due to local suncream I’d bought which protected your skin about as well as tanning oil), very painful sunburn. But that brings me to the kindness of the local people. I asked a German guy on the trek if I could use a tiny drop of his suncream, to which he said no, he needed to ration it. In comparison, I didn’t ask the locals anything but they took one look at my face and started felling trees, extracting the sap and mixing it with water to create ‘Tanacca’, their local version of suncream.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

Along the way, we stayed in makeshift beds on the floors of local’s homes. This was a great way of seeing the local lives and customs of the Burmese people. We washed from buckets, visited a local school, realised that the house we were staying in was above a cowshed, and even met a politician.

Politically, it’s an interesting time for Myanmar. The elections are drawing close and every local I spoke to told me they wanted ‘the lady’ to win so that they could have freedom and a better life. Otherwise known as Aung San Suu Kyi, her political party aims for democracy – something Myanmar has seen little of in the past. Despite lengthy jail sentences as a political prisoner and the sacrifice of not seeing her family who live overseas, Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to stay in Myanmar to fight for the country’s rights. It seems everyone is rooting for her – but our guide told us the voting process is still corrupt, and the chief of most villages simply decides on all of the residents’ votes for them. After a fortnight being shown kindness by the country’s selfless people, I truly hope they get the democracy and better life they deserve.

By the time I arrived at Inle Lake, I was a burnt, blistered mess. Luckily it was the perfect place to recover. The main thing to do was head out on a boat and visit the floating communities. A place of production, we visited a silver making workshop where we were shown how silver is extracted from rocks and made into jewellery, and then had the chance to wander the silver market itself. A similar experience was on offer at the cotton factory where we saw clothes and bags being made; and at the cigar factory, where a 9-year old child sparked up various leafy blends to demonstrate how they were made.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

My favourite part of the day was visiting the jumping cat monastery – a religious place where the monks had taught the cats on the tiny island to jump through hoops. Sadly the monks had since died and the cats seemed to have forgotten their athletic ways – but they were really cute and roamed the tiny plot of land in their hundreds, so I was happy with that.

Inle also offered the chance to hire a bike and cycle between wineries – a tempting concept but one that would have required effort from my blistered feet so was quickly abandoned. Instead, I headed to Mandalay to spend my last couple of days seeing the country’s second biggest city. There was less to do than in Yangon but still some worthwhile attractions including the ‘World’s Biggest Book’, a collection of White temples each containing a marble script of writing and acting as the pages of an enormous book. I walked the iconic U-Bein bridge and found the only thing I didn’t like was watching the Mahar Gandar Yone Monastery’s monks completing their 10.30am silent walk and meal time. Despite Myanmar being less touristy than other Asian countries, they all seemed to have flocked to the daily ritual, crowding the monks, blocking their paths and snapping photos in their faces. Since most of the Burmese monks don’t choose the lifestyle for themselves and are given to the monastery when their families can’t afford to care for them (starting life as ‘novices’ who wear white, and upgrading to wear red if they are boys and pink if they are girls at around age five or six), it was heartbreaking to watch them try and ignore the tourists and focus on their duties.

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Left from top down: Shwedagon Pagoda, Reclining Buddha, Kandawgyi Lake; Right: Shwedagon from a different angle

Myanmar was the first place I’ve ever travelled alone, so I thought that might be something that would feature in my blog. In reality, I’ve never done anything that’s felt more natural, relaxed or easy so there’s not a lot to say. Myanmar’s friendly people, and the abundance of eye opening cities, temples, countryside and communities certainly eased me in in the best way possible. I took more photos in Myanmar than I have in any other country on my trip so far – so I can only conclude there were more ‘wow’ moments I wanted to record than anywhere else. All I can say? Go before it ends up like everywhere else.

 Nepal now

 After hearing all about Nepal’s colourful cities and friendly people, I was excited to add it to my travel itinerary. When I booked with STA Travel I was told that all of my flights were amendable with a multiplex pass expect, for reasons I can’t remember, the flight to Nepal. Which was fine with me – there was no reason I’d question my decision to go… Or so I thought. Just a few days later on the 25th of April, a devastating earthquake rocked the country killing over 8,000 people and destroying homes, temples and livelihoods. Despite our shock and concern, we were posed with a difficult question – did we still go to Nepal?

On the one hand, with so much work to be done, would we be a hindrance to the Nepalese people, traipsing around expecting a lighthearted holiday whilst they worked relentlessly to rebuild their country? On the other hand, a lot can change in a four months and what better way to help rebuild the economy than to actually visit Nepal, and spend our money in local hostels and restaurants?

While there was indeed a decision to be made, the prospect of missing the chance to see Nepal and losing the flight money made it easier. So steeled for the sadness we might be in store for, we flew into Kathmandu in September as planned. Wondering about the effects of the earthquake had distracted me from thinking about Kathmandu in its own right, so the first thing that blew us away was the charm of the colourful city. Incorporating many of the tastes and smells of India, missing was the relentless heat and hectic crush, meaning it was an ideal place to wander the streets, stalls and markets at our leisure.

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A temple in Kathamandu

That wasn’t to say the effects of the earthquake weren’t apparent. More recently built Thamel, the backpacker district, was relatively unaffected and gave us the impression that the rest of the city was the same. However after wandering to Durbar Square, once home to ancient momuments such as the Dharahara Temple and the Gaddi Durbar Palace, we were stunned to find nothing but rubble and stumps where the buildings used to stand. At the moment it seems to be extremely hard to find information about post-earthquake Nepal. Before arriving, I’d googled variations of ‘How is Nepal after the earthquake?’; ‘Is Nepal safe to visit?’ etc but with no real result. Understandably, guide books haven’t been updated to reflect the recent events but even major websites, which presumably could be updated in a matter of minutes, such as the Lonely Planet still claim that the city’s most famous monuments – which in reality are nothing more than dust – still exist. The only real way to get to the bottom of things seems to be to find out for yourself.

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The sad effects of the earthquake in Durbar Square

Having not visited Nepal before the earthquake, we were unable to compare the country before and after. Unsure as to whether many of the buildings had been unaffected, or affected and restored, one thing that was obvious was the drive of the Nepalese people. Building projects could be seen all over; whilst walking round Kathmandu and whilst travelling by bus in the countryside. Despite loss of loved ones, homes and business, the one thing the people never seemed was beaten. Their reputation for being some of the world’s friendliest people seemed spot on, and post-earthquake nothing seems to have changed. Everyone we met was excited to introduce us to their culture, from telling us about the local cuisine (such as momos – dumpling-style balls filled with veg or meat and served with spicy dip), to inquiring about our own culture, and recommending us things to do and see. Humour even managed to prevail throughout all, with one of hostel owners proudly announcing that he was the third person in Nepal to tweet about the earthquake; in fact before the 60 second had even ended.

After wandering the colourful souvenir-lined streets, we sipped cocktails in rooftop bars – Nepal’s drinking culture was no Ibiza, but compared to the dry territory of India and Sri Lanka, it certainly felt like it. However, a lack of tourism seems to have hit Nepal hard, and it’s hardly surprising since would-be visitors have little way to know what things are like at this current time. From what we understood, Kathmandu used to have an exciting nightlife, and the evidence was there – the clubs were open; the music was playing; and the bartenders were in place. The only thing missing? The people. We strolled into a bar only to stroll back out on discovering we were the only ones there, and repeated the process in a few places – despite the fact it was a Friday night.

With 10 days in the country (not nearly enough we found out), we spent a couple of days in Kathmandu before heading out to Chitwan National Park and lakeside city, Pokhara. Being the tail end of monsoon season, we couldn’t do a jeep safari in the Chitwan park; but we did canoe with crocodiles – an activity which certainly stopped us drifting our fingers in the water beside the boat! The enormous crocs lay perfectly still on the riverbank, teeth glistening outside their mouths and and their glassy eyes staring in our direction. At points we were alarmingly close to them in our unsteady wooden canoe and I did wonder how safe we were – but presumably if the guides do it everyday, it couldn’t have been too risky, could it?

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A crocodile on the riverbank which we spied from our canoe

We followed our canoe trip with an elephant-back safari through the forest, where we were told an array of animals including tigers and bears lived. Rosie and I researched what to do in the face of each animal (run in a zigzag line, stare them out etc) but I quickly forgot the various procedures, so it was probably for the best that the chance of seeing the rare, nocturnal animals was extremely slim. Whilst aboard our elephant trek, we did manage to glimpse a rhino and her cub, and the the giant but gentle animals seemed unphased by our presence. The one thing I didn’t enjoy was the treatment of the elephants at Chitwan – with four of us in a cage on the back of each elephant, and the guides hitting them with sticks and spikes, I wouldn’t recommend others to take part, and wouldn’t have done myself if I’d realised how they were treated.

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A rhino and her cub

Scenic Pokhara was a fantastic third point on our triangular trip, and balanced out busy Kathmandu and action-packed Chitwan with a little relaxation. Set around an enormous freshwater lake, most of the hotels are a short walk from the waterfront, where colourful rowing boats bob on the surface. Hiring one for the day is a relaxing way to see waterfalls, the floating temple and reach the tree-lined opposite banks to trek in the area.

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Colourful boats in pretty Pokhara

That being said, Pokhara’s famed adrenaline sports are anything but relaxing. Passing up a bunjee jump, we opted for paragliding and, attached only to an instructor and a parachute, ceremoniously threw ourselves off the top of a mountain. Soaring through the skies on the thermal gusts of wind was a truly once in a lifetime experience (though at times I did wonder if could be the last experience of my lifetime). It wasn’t stomach-dropping the way some action adventure activities are, as rather than falling, you glide the whole time, starting with the roads and houses as tiny pinpricks below you, and slowly descending over the lake and landing on the banks.

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The dizzy heights of my paragliding experience

Once we’d soaked up Chitwan and Pokhara, we rushed back to Kathmandu to spend the last couple of days before our outbound flights in the captivating city. We stayed at a cosy and colourful hostel, Fireflies, where we payed £2 a night for wooden bunks built into cubbyholes in the walls. Everywhere was lit by fairy lights, and from the common area streamed cheap run and promise of home-cooked chicken dinners. Many of the guests had checked in months ago and simply not left, falling in love with the county and talking up relief work to help Nepal rise again. If I hadn’t had a flight already booked, I’d have joined them.

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The view from Kathmundu’s Swayambhunath Temple

Seeing Sri Lanka

After beginning my trip in the North of India, it’s been very easy to compare the following stops – cosmopolitan Mumbai, beachey Kerala and now Sri Lanka – to the extremities of North India.

Probably the poorest, the most hectic, yet the most colourful and religious place on my trip, India set the bar for a cultural experience high. So different to life back home, it drew a benchmark and I suspect everywhere else will slot somewhere between India and the UK in terms of cultural comparison. Knowing little about Sri Lanka before arriving, I almost expected a little India – a toned down Delhi or just a bit of Jaipur. In some ways it was. Sri Lankan lifestyles seem modest; but it’s a far cry from the heartbreaking poverty of India. Religion is part of life but the devout culture, daily chanting and prohibited alcohol are missing. It still appears to be a country run by men, but women aren’t bound to saris and in general, people dress much more like we do at home – the exotic, traditional clothes, jewels, henna and bindhis aren’t widespread here. Colombo’s glittering skyscrapers, Hilton hotels, bars and shops head a city in which you could imagine having a life not so dissimilar to that we have in the West – something we rarely found in North India.

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A view of Colombo

But in contrast, Sri Lanka offers an experience of its own. Nestled in the Indian Ocean, the teardrop island is a flora and fauna – a lush jungle to India’s dusty streets.

Lonely Planet lists one of the top 20 things to do in Sri Lanka as travel by train, though I wasn’t sure if this was to fill space after listing the top cities and sights. After five train journeys in our 10 day Sri Lanka trip, I’d say not. Not only are the trains ridiculously cheap (you can get half way across the country for the equivalent of £2), the sights you see are simply breathtaking. The winding train tracks scale mountains, valleys and cliff faces, showcasing hillside towns and villages where the lives of local children and adults play out for travellers. Elaborate temples – gilded domes and colourful contraptions – stand in even the smallest of settlements, giving a central point to the community, around which barefooted children scamper and people stand outside modest homes. No two houses are the same – from pink and turquoise square residences, to corrugated metal roofed shacks nestled under leaning palms, and half-built but never finished concrete blocks set into the hillside, seeing one doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all. Bunches of bananas frame faded shop signs as the stalls below dole out colourful bottled drinks, while fleets of red and green tuk tuks hang around outside the terracotta stations that slowly slip past the train window.

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A train journey through the scenic Sri Lankan countryside

Famous for its tea plantations, hillsides coated in distinctive three-sprigged dark green tea plants make up a vast part of the scenery, disturbed only by far-away men and women plucking at the greenery and throwing the sprigs over their shoulders into collection baskets. Hours on a train can be dreamed away, staring out at the ever-changing landscape that constantly throws up new scenes – children playing football, soaped up and washing in a local river, monkeys flitting between the trees, the tail end of the blue train snaking into the hillside with every corner. Even without the people, the scenery itself is something to behold. From leaning banana trees, to six foot tall giant grasses and wondrous tree trunks that surely reached the sky, the greenery rolls on and on, until the misty mountains join the skyline, inseparable from the clouds.

After a couple of days exploring Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and cultural Kandy with its temples, rain forest walks and giant Buddha statues, we headed into the very centre of the country, known for its scenery and walking opportunities. The World’s End – a cliff edge viewing platform within Horton Plains National Park – is a favourite among travelers. I’d like to say we set off to see it with vigor and enthusiasm but in reality we were picked up by a taxi driver at 4.30am, whining and eating cocoa puffs. Arriving before 9am is crucial, we were told, especially in off-peak season when the mist eclipses the views by mid-morning. Following an hour’s drive and a couple of hours walking through the National Park to the World’s End viewing point, we were presented with a view which you simply had to see to believe. The tree-lined mountains towered in all directions, giving in to a hollowed valley which stretched off to the horizon, punctuated with glistening lakes. Within 20 minutes of our 8.30am arrival, the circling mist rose from the valley, quickly eclipsing all but the space up to a few metres in front of us.

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The viewpoint at Horton Plains National Park

Although not a lot could compete with the World’s End, we travelled next to Ella, a peaceful village which felt a million miles from anywhere. Clearly popular with Westerners keen for trekking, we ended up surrounded by other British people, and an abundance of international restaurants and pricey souvenir shops. Despite this, the terrace outside our bedroom looked out onto unfolding forest, waterfalls and the famous Ella Rock, and after eating out in the town, the hillside track home was lit only by fireflies. A day trekking in the area was tiring, though rewarding. We paddled in rock pools at the tops of waterfalls, scaled cliff faces to get to the highest vantage point (with throngs of other English people in tow) and were only slightly deterred by an axe-wielding farmer who seemed to think we owed him money for directions (a one off situation – the rest of the Sri Lankans we met were full of kindness).

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At the top of Ella Rock

With only 10 days in Sri Lanka, we haven’t time to see the colourful temples of the north, sleepy beach town Arugam Bay in the east or colonial Galle in the south. But at least we get another train ride to the airport, punctuated by villages, tea plantations and forests – this time at sunset.

Cooling down in Kerala

Drifting down the backwaters on a houseboat, Kerala could be the world’s most picture-perfect  destination. Even if you had no stress to escape from, the lazy Palm trees and still waters would still be a welcome escape from the 9 to 5.

By the time we arrived in Kerala, we’d been backpacking in India for nearly a month. If there’s anywhere that requires a holiday after visiting, it’s India. Amazing as it is, it just doesn’t stop – the constant, crazy traffic; blaring horns and beeping tuk tuks; overwhelming heat; unavoidable staring and hot, heavy cuisine. Kerala is without a doubt, India’s more relaxed counterpart. The temperature was more bearable, the cuisine lighter – think fresh fish served on banana leaves rather than steaming pools of curry in the baking heat – and the greenery was a welcome alternative to north India’s dusty, dry climate.

The best thing we did in Kerala was spend a night on a houseboat. We had the benefit of off-peak season on our side meaning a boat rental was typically half the price of that of peak season. An ideal way to relax and forget backpacker life, a day and night bobbing on the waterways allowed us to see the scenery without moving a muscle. The still waters made for a smooth ride and the lush green riverbanks, piled with Palm trees, stretched out as far as the eye could see.

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Sunset on the backwaters

Other obvious benefits of the houseboat experience included an onboard chef who prepared us fresh fish, coconut curry and poppadoms. Lay out-wise, it was much like a canal boat with a deck area to relax at one end and cosy bedrooms along a thin corridor.

Anyone in need of entertainment would have found little in the way of excitement on the houseboat, but after a busy couple of weeks, we were in our element relaxing, listening to music and soaking up the sunshine from the deck. Weather-wise, we were pleasantly surprised. Knowingly booking a trip to India during monsoon season was in some ways a risky move, but we seemed to miss the brunt of it. A few weeks before arriving in the country, the hashtag ‘Mumbai rains’ had been trending on Twitter, accompanied with images of people swimming in the streets and trains overflowing with water. We’d also been warned against travelling to Kerala in August as monsoon season is often worse in the south, and the prospect of shut-down towns and closed tourist attractions was understandably off-putting. Luckily, we were met with blue skies, warm temperatures and, although the hotels and guest houses were fairly quiet, we still found plenty to do and see.

The colourful capital, Kochi, offers plenty of markets and a diverse community. Visiting the Jewish area and local synagogue seemed unusual when compared to the Hindu and Muslim majority in the north of the country. Hostels are less common in Kerala but local homestays offer comfortable, hotel-like rooms connected to family homes, meaning tourists can benefit from local advice and an authentic set up. We only had four days in the south of India but with other glorious destinations such as Goa still to explore, we hope we get the chance to come back one day…

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Hannah, Rosie and I aboard our boat for the night

Mumbai – a city of two halves 

When I first got to Mumbai, I thought it would swallow me whole. If I was prone to panic attacks I imagine I would have had one on our first day in Mumbai. After a crazy and confusing rickshaw ride to an out of town hostel which smelled like something had died there a long time ago, we decided to relocate – which resulted in another hectic journey punctuated by grid locked roads, blaring horns and a jumble of streets and addresses which made it impossible to find anywhere. The thick, polluted air made it hard to breathe and the busy, congested streets and towering buildings completely eclipsed any sign of sky or exit from the ratrace below. A strange, unpleasant smell seemed to cling around many of the shops and restaurants, and like many of India’s cities, the poverty on the streets hit home.

It wasn’t until settling in at a hotel in Colaba, a popular district by the waterfront, and having a base to relax from that we ventured back out and started to see a different side to Mumbai. Having spent the last three weeks travelling much smaller Indian towns, it was figuratively a breath of fresh air (even if in reality it wasn’t that clean at all). Like any international city, the appeal of Western cuisine, shops and even bars – a rariety in more religious parts of Northern India – offer travellers a respite from backpacker life. If needs be, croissants and cheesecake can replace curry and chapatis during your stay – depending how much you want to immerse yourself in the Indian culture of course. With one of the world’s most expensive venues, the Taj Palace Hotel, nestled on the waterfront by the Gateway of India, there’s truly something for all types of visitor. The glitzy interior of the hotel showcases designer shops and a wealth of fancy restaurants and bars; we meandered inside wearing our best clothes (crumpled skirts straight from our backpacks) and casually ordered one cocktail each, swiftly refusing the offer of any table snacks. Gazing at the seafront from the air conditioned immaculate hotel interior, you really felt the two separate sides to the city. With sixty percent of the population living in slums, but Mumbai having one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, and in fact the planet’s most expensive property (the 27-floor, 400,000-square foot skyscraper resident owned by billionaire, Mukesh Ambani) based here, it really is a city of two halves.

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The Gateway on India

During our visit we also headed out on a slum tour. We hadn’t known what to expect in advance – we didn’t want to end up oggling at the residents in a pitying way. The tour (with a local NGO, Reality Tours) really didn’t run that risk, showing us many of the positive and unique sides of the slum communities, from their local enterprises and the businesses being run from within the area, to the bright and colourful schools teaching English to the children, and the local forms of entertainment, like the small cinema offering tickets to Hindi films for the equivalent of 10p. That’s not to say the slums were privileged or comfortable – squeezing down some of the tiny, dingy alleyways and learning about families of eight living in 10 by 10 foot homes, and 1,500 residents sharing 10 toilet cubicles between them, was extremely humbling. The slums made us appreciate what we have, but they also left us impressed at the drive and determination of the local people.

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Exploring the ancient Elephanta Caves

A worthwhile break from sprawling Mumbai is a ferry trip to Elephanta Island where the ancient caves were adorned with pillars and carvings of the Gods over 1,500 years ago. In addition, a trip to Gandhi’s house and a walk or taxi journey down Marine Drive to see the beach and skyscrapers on the horizon shouldn’t be missed. We also headed to see a Bollywood film at the cinema – a colourful experience although as it showed only in Hindi, we were fairly in the dark. With the urban influence of the West blended with Indian sights, tastes and smells; and the flashy venues paired with the struggling yet entrepreneurial slums, Mumbai can’t really be compared to any of India’s other cities. The staple sights of North India – dusty roads and rickshaws swerving around sleepy, stationary cows and goats – are a million miles away. Even Delhi seems more like a sprawling village compared to the cosmopolitan high-rise flats and offices of modern Mumbai. I’m glad we came but I’m also looking forward to relaxing by the Kerala backwaters, beer in hand…

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Rosie on Mumbai beach

The Golden Triangle – Delhi to Jaipur 

They say you should get off the beaten track in India. We’ve been told that nothing can steel you for the overwhelming chaos that is Delhi; that Agra is only good for seeing the Taj. So when planning our trip to India, we debated how much time to focus on the big three before heading off piste to other, more underrated attractions, such as sleepy, religious Pushkar, and the desert safaris of Jaisalmer.

If it’s colour you’re looking for, none of the northern cities – on the beaten track or otherwise – will disappoint. Agra’s status as the White City is wholeheartedly supported by the Taj Mahal’s marble pillars; Jaipur stakes it’s claim as the Pink City; Jodhphur’s blue buildings earn its crown as the Blue City; and the rolling desert and golden stone homes of Jaisalmer deem it the Golden City. And Delhi? Delhi can only be described as a blur of colours, from the vibrant sea of sarees; the colourful displays of fruit and veg lining the streets; the encompassing bazaars of Old Delhi showcasing sparkling jewellery, bright slabs of meat and shanty-style shops and homes, splashed in paint of all shades. There’s a dark side to Delhi too – the extreme poverty and people slumped, sleeping in doorways and the children who work for the Mafia. Whilst sat in a car in traffic, we witnessed a girl not older than about seven with piercings on either side of her nose and all up her ears, dancing for change in a disturbing fashion, looking as if her arms and legs would pop out of their sockets. When she came up close and banged on the window, her eyes looked empty. Our driver told us she’d have to give any money she earned to her bosses.

Because of the nature of Delhi, we’d been advised not to stay long. Hiring a driver for the day – an extravagance by English standards – set us back around £5 each and let us see Delhi’s sights, of which there are many, with our own tour guide and the luxury of an air conditioned car – a blessing in the 40 degree heat. With the impressive Red Fort, decadent Humayun Tombs, the ancient Qut’b Minar tower, the Lotus Temple – a Buddhist place of worship – and the heaving Connaught Place and old Delhi markets, it would be a shame to not fully appreciate India’s vibrant capital. Due to the sheer size of Delhi, it’s intimidating crowds (especially for those just landed in the country) and the heat of the season, navigating the sprawling city by foot, tuk tuk or metro might be enough to exhaust even the savviest of travellers.

After acclimatising the day you land and a lie in to beat the jet lag, a day or even two in the capital is enough to see the sights before escaping to calmer climates.

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Delhi’s colourful streets

Essential on any North India itinerary, a trip to Agra brings the beauty of the Taj, if little else. The road leading up to it is dusty and dull; you’d expect it to lead to a dead end or fork in the road over one of the Wonders of the World. Once you enter the site, you’re immediately greeted with a regal gate, supported by four towered domes and decorated with delicate paintwork. Through the Taj gardens and there it awaits – cool, calm marble serenely dominating the skyline. Perfectly symmetrical, the Taj is complimented by a tree-lined rectangular pool running up to it, red carpet style.

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The Taj Mahal

Once the Taj has been ticked off, Agra offers one or two other spots of interest including the city’s fort, but the path to Jaipur is, for good reason, that most travelled.

From monkey temples to elephant sanctuaries, the Pink City boasts an array of attractions and a city centre which, hectic by our standards, is a manageable maze in comparison to Delhi. Two or three days are needed to soak up the sights of Jaipur, though even a flying visit should include a trip to the Amber Fort. While travellers in India are likely to become disengaged at the prospect of yet another fort, Jaipur’s contribution is a step ahead of the rest with a mirrored winter palace, sculptured water gardens, a night-time light show, and an external wall made to mirror the Great Wall of China.

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Jaipur Fort lit up for a nighttime light show

Whilst a week will do for the Golden Triangle, other unmissable stops will paint a prettier picture of the Indian landscape. The pilgrimage town of Pushkar, settled just a few hours from Jaipur, lets visitors experience the town’s five hundred temples and friendly market place vibe, and the chance to watch the sky fade to purple from the Sunset Cafe, while religious chants drift across the tranquil central lake.

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Sunset in pretty Pushkar

The equally local feel of Jaisalmer, a settlement based in the west, allows you to catch your breath and, better yet, head out into the desert on a camel safari and sleep under the stars (or in our case, cower under a makeshift tent in the eye of a storm – the downside to monsoon season). The golden rooftops of Jaisalmer roll out as far as the eye can see, making it a refreshing alternative to the more hectic views we’ve become used to.

Views of Jaisalmer
A view of Jaisalmer in the late afternoon

With other cities such as Jodphur and Udaiper still to explore, some of North India’s most enticing destinations are well off the beaten triangular track. See the big three but be sure to head off into the sunset…