10 top tips for surviving and loving India

It’s the strangest thing – whenever I tell people I recently visited India they tend to have the same reaction. Instead of the positive responses people usually have towards easy-to-travel destinations like Southeast Asia, their expressions morph into a cloud of worry. In the same kind of tone they might use to inquire into a family trauma or the death of a beloved pet, they say ‘oh, did you have any problems?’ or ‘were you alone?’ with a look of confusement as if I’ve just told them I single-handedly wrestle cobras for fun.

I’m not saying everyone reacts like this, but it’s pretty common especially with older or inexperienced travelers who might not appreciate how easy the backpack lifestyle is.

Security seems to be people’s main concern, in particular women’s safety. It’s fair to say that India is still developing in terms of wealth and in terms of sexism. Yes, you hear of incidents and I’m not saying bad things never happen to tourists but the majority of India’s inequality problems seem to be within their own communities. My own experiences as a traveler in India were, for the most part, very positive. Like many other Asian destinations, your money is your capital and even if by our standards you don’t have a lot, it goes much further in India. What you do spend impacts positively on people’s lifestyles, and we only found people to be kind and friendly.

There are a few things you probably should know before embarking on an India trip, so here are my top tips to ensure you’re prepared. India is well up there as one of my favourite destinations of all time so as long as you understand it’s going to be different from anything you’ve experienced before, you’ll be fine.

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1. Plan your route in advance and confirm your train journeys 

Trains are your best bet for getting about India but in peak season they’re often booked up weeks in advance. We traveled in monsoon season so didn’t have huge problems but sometimes when booking journeys just days before we ended up on waiting lists. This meant you wouldn’t find out until the morning of your journey whether or not you’d be boarding, which made planning tricky.

So deciding your route before arriving in India can be a very good idea. Website Clear Trip was our go to application for sorting all our travel. It required a tricky registration process: if you didn’t have an Indian phone number you had to email in a scan of your passport to receive a code and activate your account. Once the registration was done though, we never had to rock up at stations hoping to get on a packed train – we could select our date and class of carriage online. I’d recommend first or second class. Even a first class journey tended to cost about £10 and provided you with your own carriage containing bunks and a door that locked from from the inside – great on sleepers if you’re worried about security. Second class was just as comfy but with curtains instead of doors, so it’s your call whether you want the extra peace of mind.

Route wise, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are the obvious stops and definitely worth a visit. Jaipur is a must-go for monkeys, forts and markets and I’ll discuss Delhi and Agra in particular in a moment. I’d also recommend a few others: Pushkar, a serene market town close to Jaipur where the pink sky and chanting around the lake make for an otherworldly feel. Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City and famed for its overnight camel safaris; Udaiper or the ‘White City’ is set around a majestic lake and known for the 1983 James Bond classic, Octopussy, whilst Jodphur steals the title ‘Blue City’ and boasts forts, zip wires and more. I’ve got loads to say about North India – check out another of my blogs here.

2. Prepare for it to be hectic

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The bustling alleyways often don’t leave much room to get by

Hectic could be used to describe a busy supermarket on a Friday evening. ‘Carnage’ could well be a better description. I challenge you to find somewhere more insane than old Delhi – cramped, curving alley ways with higgledly piggedly shop fronts, tuk tuks swerving in every direction, cows roaming the cobbles, huge knots of sparking electric cables hanging down over the streets, and the relentless heat: so, so sweaty. Whizzing though the streets by tuk tuk we were instructed to keep our limbs inside the vehicle and hold tight to our belongings. Bent over old ladies, gaunt and wide-eyed reached to touch us, their hands outstretched for money; little girls danced for cash while their mafia bosses looked on from afar; and chickens, cows and goats caused the tuk tuk to come screeching halts. Had the chaos been slightly more manageable we might have felt stressed, but with the madness being utterly out of control, we sat back like puppets, letting the colourful calamity wash over us and trying not to pick up any unwanted four-legged passengers who might try and climb aboard. In my eyes, as long as you know you can’t do anything to control India, you can learn to embrace it.

3. Delhi and Agra are worth a visit but don’t stay too long

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A couple of traditional tuk tuks in front of Delhi’s famous India Gate

As discussed in the example above, Delhi’s not exactly a relaxing city, especially in the heat (between March and September it’s pretty damn boiling). One of the best things we did to survive Delhi was take a taxi tour for the day. Costing about £7 each, our driver took us all around the city to the sights we wanted to see and filled us in on the history as went. The best bit was the air conditioned car: a blessing in 40 degree humid heat – we just had to climb out to see the attractions. Delhi has plenty to see: the Red Fort, India Gate, heaving Connaught Place and the Lotus Temple to name a few. Time it right and you can see them all in day or two, leaving you free to move on to more relaxing and scenic parts of India.

Agra

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Agra’s iconic tomb: the Taj Mahal

This may sound like I’m encouraging you to rush through all India’s cities which I’m not, but I do believe due to the hectic atmosphere in Delhi and the lack of attractions in Agra, they’re a great two places to start with but not worth missing India’s other green (OK, dusty) pastures for.

Agra is famous for the majestic Taj Mahal and this was truly a highlight of my trip. Other than that, the city was small and didn’t boast a whole host of other sights. We booked to spend two nights in Agra and after seeing the Taj on the morning of the first day, we spent the next two days lying on the lawn of our hostel.

But back to the Taj – it’s magical. Immaculate, sweeping lawns run up to it like red carpets; it’s white marble exterior stands serene and peaceful especially when mounted against a dreamy pink sky at dawn. Tiny, silent birds fly by – specks of black don’t disturb the sense of calm the building exudes. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the future tomb for his wife. Slightly morbid to start preparing for her death years in advance but at the same time the ultimate romantic gesture.

4. Watch out for scams

We got scammed once within our month long India trip, but it was within 10 minutes of arrival which didn’t set us the best first impression.

Make sure when waiting for any kind of pick up, you’re vigilant in making sure the driver tells you who he’s waiting for and where he’s going. Asking a taxi driver ‘are you waiting for Rose to go to the Moustache hostel?’ will only give them the opportunity to pretend so. Whilst waiting for our transfer on landing, a driver asked me where I was going, and without thinking, I told him. He said sorry, he didn’t know it and I thought nothing more of the exchange.

A couple of minutes later, a guy jogged over saying he was sorry for being late, were we waiting to go to the Moustache Hostel? We gratefully climbed into his car where he announced due to road blockades, we’d be heading to a sister branch of the same hostel, and put a friendly and professional sounding manager on the phone who confirmed the story.

It didn’t take us long to realise we’d been done. The first guy we’d spoken to had clearly informed his friend where we were headed, enabling him to pretend to be our driver, and the ‘sister hostel’ we were en route to was just a different, and undoubtedly more expensive, business he and the ‘manager’ on the phone worked for.

We later found out this was a common scam from Delhi airport – so watch out for it. We handled the situation by firm insistence that we go to our original destination and and that we didn’t care about the road blockades (which unsurprisingly turned out not to exist).

Mere minutes in India and we were already fighting scams. But were the people trying to threaten or hurt us? Not whatsoever. India is one of the world’s poorest regions so naturally people sometimes try to take tourists for a ride in the aim of making money. Once you understand your relative riches do set you up as a target (many people work for under a dollar a day), you can learn to be vigilant whilst knowing the people aren’t interested in hurting you. A bum bag also wouldn’t go a miss in deterring pick pockets.

5. Go local

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Beating the backpacker crowds and meeting locals in a small village

A global style hostel in India will only set you back only around £4 a night and will include breakfast, WiFi and plenty of perks – English speaking staff, a safe and secure place to stay and the chance to meet other like-minded backpackers: the same things hostels worldwide provide. So if you’re nervous or by yourself – go for them!

Hostels I’d recommend include Moustache Hostel in both Delhi and Jaipur, Zostel in Agra and various other locations, Crashpad in Jaipur and Mystic in Jaisalmer.

But if you’re feeling ready to see the real India, give a local guesthouse a try: you won’t regret it. In pretty market town, Pushkar (close to Jaipur), we opted to stay in our own private room at the Milkman Guesthouse for £1 a night. Yes, £1. Undoubtedly the cheapest stay I’ve had anywhere in the world. Yes, the toilet was a shared hole in floor; no, there was no warm water; no, there was no air con. But the place was bright and beautiful and the manager embraced us, inviting his family members to adorn us in henna, cooking us dinner himself and telling us his stories.

He was lucky to be alive. After crashing his tuk tuk after drinking 22 beers, he’d spent three months in a coma and was now poorer than ever before after spending his life’s savings on his healthcare. But he was no less welcoming because of it (though I hope less likely to drink and drive again) and the local stay provided us with stories we’d probably never be able to tell had we stayed in a generic backpackers.

6. Learn to love curry, though you’ll end up hating it – at least for a while

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A traditional South Indian spread

‘Oh, I love curry!’ I exclaimed on day one; a fresh faced and naive newbie to India’s culinary scene.

Flash forward thirty days and I was sobbing and gagging into my scarf at the very notion of one more paneer tikka.

‘Everything in moderation’ is a saying that has nothing to do with India. Around Southeast Asia it’s easy enough to seek out different cuisines and dishes (western options are plentiful if you want them) but around most of India, curry is king. There aren’t many alternatives – which is fine for lunch and dinner but curry and spicy rice for breakfast aren’t always what our western palettes crave when we wake up. Just trust me, you’ll be dying for a break of the hot and heavy cuisine by the end, especially when you’re often eating in 40 degree heat.

Still, at least you can experiment between regions. North India is more of what I was expecting – curries, rice, samosas etc. It’s true that a lot of our western curry dishes are adapted to suit our taste buds – we rarely saw kormas, and meat dishes were few and far between. Instead we noticed a focus on veggie dishes including paneer cheese and lots of spinach sauces, known as ‘palak’.

Down in Southern India’s Kerala we quickly became accustomed to the very different style of cooking. ‘Dosa’ refers to thin, crispy pancake-like shells with a mix of dips: usually mango chutney, cottage-style cheese and spicy sauces. We also saw a lot of seafood, often served up on banana leaves. Curries were still present but tended to feature coconutty flavours and generally lighter sauces than the heavy, northern flavours.

To survive and love India you’ll need to develop a taste for spice and a preference for veggie dishes. Due to a lack of power, fridges and general sanitation issues, plus the religious issues (cows are considered holy and not used for food), meat is generally a lot less popular than at home.

7. Prepare for stomach upsets

I don’t need to elaborate here. India opened our minds in ways we never knew possible and the same applied to our bowels.

I’m elaborating too much already. Just bring Imodium, okay?

8. Perfect your pose 

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My friend getting papped with a local’s family members

When in India, people will want to take photos of you. And they will want to do it a lot. And they will want you to hold their babies. And pose with their grandmas, and then other people will see and decide, what a great idea, they should request the same photo shoot.

Honestly, I felt like Taylor Swift. Did they think I was Taylor? Had they heard of Taylor and thought I’d be a passable substitute? Either way it was something you had to get used to. But far from being creepy, I just found the attention and photo taking were down to curiosity. Especially as my friend and I were blonde we were just that bit more of a spectacle than other travelers.

Accept you’re unusual and don’t shy away from the photos and you’ll be warmly accepted and certain to make new friends. If it gets a bit much – such as everyone in the vicinity wants a snap and you’re starting to feel crowded – simply be polite but firm and say sorry, no more.

(With media training like that, I may as well be Taylor Swift, let’s be honest).

9. Leave your heels at home 

If you’re expecting a drinking holiday in India – don’t. I think there are more opportunities for merriment in less conservative Goa but as we didn’t visit, I’m not too sure. India is spectacular for many things: culture, market shopping, food, cities – but not nightlife. In fact with its devout religious landscape, it’s pretty much a dry zone. Locals, I think mainly men, do drink from time to time (see point number five with the drink driving hostel owner) but it’ll be different from what you’re used to. Alcohol is virtually never on menus but on seeing that we were western, we’d often be offered a beer in hushed tones and instructed to keep it out of sight or even served it in a paper bag as a disguise.

To be honest, we didn’t even want it. Well, sometimes it would have been just the thing to steady our nerves but usually by the end of the day we were hot and exhausted from whatever hectic city we’d been navigating, and a night out was the last thing we could muster up the energy for. India the day after too many drinks would have been a hangover on acid.

10. Hold on tight

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A snap of Delhi’s chaotic roads

Anyone whose ever tutted at UK drivers or sighed at M25 tailbacks: you’ve seen nothing yet.

One of my favourite (though at the time most terrifying) tales to tell was when my friend and I were catching a local bus from Pushkar to Jaipur. The driver instructed us to sit, instead of in regular seats, a kind of upstairs cabin which we had to climb a ladder to reach. It had carpeted floors and walls and no seat belts. It was kind of like a furry cupboard so even if we were thrown around, at least it was padded.

As well as being extremely hot, the journey was certainly an interesting ride. Traveling down the motorway at 70mph, a traffic jam emerged on the horizon and our driver decided no, today was not a day he wanted to sit in traffic.

Instead, he performed an emergency stop (thank God for the padded cupboard). Then, he put the bus in reverse and sent us reeling backwards down the motorway, into the path of speeding cars and lorries and to a chorus of screams from the other passengers.

We have a theory that this must have been an extreme circumstance even for the Indian roads as the screams were coming from local passengers who were fairly acclimatised to the driving.

It didn’t end there as our driver then proceeded to drive diagonally across the centre of the road and mount the road heading in the opposite direction. He sped down the hard shoulder for the next hour with other vehicles careering along inches from us.

By the time we reached our end destination we were feeling lucky to be alive. Over the course of the month there was plenty of other such dramatic journeys. Lanes aren’t really a thing – everyone just drives in a massive throng, weaving around each other. We did ask a taxi driver how people know where to stay – he said they just do. For the most part, people seem to rise from the chaos like phoenix: unscathed and coated in a thick layer of dust and dirt, often having acquired a wandering goat.

Maybe it works – though I don’t think it’ll kick off in the UK.

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In case you needed proof – cows really do wander the roads

So these are my 10 top tips for surviving India. Anything I’ve said that sounds less than positive – take it the way you would a rant about someone’s best friend or parent when you know they love them really. India’s often testing, usually chaotic, sometimes infuriating but always incredible. Also, it’s the cheapest place I’ve ever been. In a month I spent what I have in five days in New Zealand so it’s safe to say you’ve no excuse not to go.

I do understand its not always for everyone. If you think you can’t handle getting run over by a tuk tuk in 40 degree heat whilst being simultaneously photographed from all angles and licked by a cow, maybe go to Spain instead.

But I reckon if you push your boundaries and increase your tolerance, the rewards will be yours to reap and the memories will last a lifetime.

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If you needed any more encouragement, the sunsets are certainly a reason to visit

Melbourne: coffee culture, street art and one perfect peninsula

I‘d seen some of Australia when I last visited a few years ago but didn’t make it to Melbourne until recently. With half the UK seeming to up and move there in search of work, I was feeling curious as to whether I should do the same.

It seems slightly like a city of dreams. Contrary to the belief of Australians, it’s never really cold by our standards; beaches are nearby; it’s fashionable, urban and great for socialising. What’s not to like? After seven months in Asia, I was aware heading back to the Western world was going to be a shock, financially and in terms of lifestyle. But with a milder climate and promise of all the foods I’d been craving for so long (cheese and wine, I’m talking to you), Melbourne seemed as good a place as any – if not better – to make the transition.

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Some of the city’s colourful street art

When we first arrived in the city we did the usual Lonely Planet/Trip Advisor/Google routine to make sure we knew what there was to do, but unlike some places, we didn’t come up with an unmanageable hit list of multiple must-sees. Sure, there’s the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum and a few other points of interest but much of what Melbourne is all about is experiencing the vibe.

Saying that, the street art is certainly not one to miss. Urban graffiti-style pictures and images cover many of the alleyways top to bottom and showcase anything from elephants to flowers and cartoons. Top spots to explore include Hosier and Rutledge Lane, Degraves Street and Centre Place. As freedom of expression goes, Melbourne is a living collage and great fun to explore.

It’s a city without many chains. Yes, there are McDonald’s (or Maccas as the Aussies call them) and the usual coffee franchises but mainly Melbourne is all about independent and quirky venues. The lanes off central Elizabeth Street are a great example. There are luxurious gelaterias, ever-in-demand pancake parlours, intimate Italian coffee corners and wine – so much wine. I don’t think I appreciated how much I loved Asia until I left but I have to ask the question: where is the wine? As they don’t produce it, it’s either a horribly expensive imported one, or just no wine. And on a travel budget, the latter tended to win.

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Delectable treats in a Melbourne deli

So wine was on the agenda, as was cheese, as were pastries. An afternoon wandering the cute and quirky lanes was not one wasted. There’s not a huge hippie vibe but there’s certainly a hint of it with vegan foods and smoothie bars ruling the roost.

Another option for foodies and culture enthusiasts is a visit to Chinatown. Though perhaps it should be called Little Asia as Vietnamese food, Korean dishes and sushi in abundance are all on your doorstep. I was especially excited to dig into some Vietnamese as during my time in the country I’d fallen in love with fresh spring rolls and pho, which aren’t always easy to come by elsewhere. It was all relatively good value. Not Asia cheap of course – pho was ten times what it would be in Vietnam but by the London prices I’m used to, it really wasn’t terrible. We found a few places offering bottles of wine for $20 (£10) and steak (and potentially the biggest one I’ve ever seen – pretty sure I consumed half a cow) and chips for $14 (£7). It’s a place where deals can be found if you look for them and in shock at the absence of Asia prices, look we did.

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Colourful additions to Melbourne’s streets

Despite the relaxed feel, many of the Melbourne residents ooze glamour. Compared to London or New York, it’s a small city with around four million residents. So rather than the rat race being nonstop, there’s more of a gentle buzz as people arrive to work in the CBD and socialise around the streets at lunchtime. It’s an understated glamour – it’s no heels and ballgown scene but people seem to meet friends and partners looking slightly like they’ve stepped out of a H&M catalogue: smart-casual, well-fitted but as if they’ve thrown their look together with very little effort. My Australian friends commented that I still looked like a typical traveller, which made sense as that’s exactly what I was. Rocking elephant pants and flip flops, I got into trouble when trying to get served in urban city centre bars.

My memories of Australia’s east coast were uber casual – who would be wearing anything but flip flops? (The Australians call them thongs which can cause no end of confusing and unintentionally creepy conversations). Still, the first time we tried to enter the Asian Beer Cafe, renowned for its $8 jugs, I was turned away for having no I.D, something you’re never asked for in Asia and I’d almost forgotten was a thing. After uttering ‘but I’m 26!’ then remembering that’s not how it works, we were forced to find a new place to drink. When I returned a few nights later triumphantly clutching my passport, I was promptly asked to leave for my choice of thong footwear. I just couldn’t win!

So for backpackers, Melbourne could spit you back out of its upmarket venues. Mostly though, there’s a spot for everyone. If it’s not the sophisticated Lygon Street (Melbourne’s Italian district) where beautiful delicatessens dole out aromatic coffee and indulgent croissants piled with almond fondant and sugar icing, it could be hipster favourite, Fitzroy. It’s an area which is up and coming and as it’s just a 15-minute tram ride from the city centre and full of quirky venues, it’s hardly surprising.

Fitzroy reminded me of London’s Shoreditch. In-and-out fast food made fancy and served on paper plates gave it a certain edge. We opted for cafe-style, self-ordered tacos: a great shout. My cousin had recently moved to Fitzroy and complete with hipster housemates and indoor graffiti, her house share was everything I’d expect from the quirky district.

Then there’s St Kilda – home of the Brit abroad. Most of my friends who’ve ended up in Aus seem to have settled in St Kilda, so we headed there one rainy afternoon to see what all the fuss was about. We didn’t meet many Australians: the staff at lunch all seemed to be from London or Manchester so clearly the allure was strong enough to keep them far from home.

Again, St Kilda wasn’t packed with sights, although on a non-rainy day we could have hung out on the beach which is right on the doorstep of St Kilda – not a bad life! In peak season Luna Park also offers a quirky attraction – a theme park built for kids but probably fun for big kids like ourselves too. The giant clown face entrance was ever so slightly terrifying in a Steven King-esque way but also added a splash of colour to the neighbourhood – definitely needed on a grey day like the one we visited.

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Luna Park’s quirky entrance

The main street running through St Kilda offered just about everything you’d ever hope to find – incense-filled Indian trinket shops, cheap fashion stores (such as Aussie favourite Target where we picked up denim shorts for $10), British-style pubs, Spanish churros dipped in liquid chocolate, Greek eateries and Italian delis. We were spoilt for choice, but living in the neighbourhood would surely bring the ultimate diversity to ensure you never got bored.

For tourists, the city centre is the most accessible area to explore. The nearby beaches like St Kilda and Middle Brighton are nice but not renowned to be as special as some of Australia’s favourite sandy spots. On the connecting Mornington Peninsula just a couple of hours south of Melbourne however, beach life is at its peak.

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Sorrento beach

Luckily, we had some Melbourne pals to rely on to ferry us around and show us the highlights (thanks again, guys!) We spent a spectacular day heading down south to Sorrento and touring the nearby beaches. Sorrento beach was postcard pretty with a tiny church conducting a wedding ceremony whilst we were there. The waves, however, were a little choppy and we struggled to stay upright and more pressingly, keep our bikinis where they were meant to be. Anyone passing through Sorrento town should be sure to check out Mubble Ice Creamery where bubblegum and marshmallow flavour is perfect for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Afterwards, we ventured to Blairgowrie beach where my friends encouraged me to throw myself off the high cliffs to the huge rock pools of water below. Thanks but no thanks – though I did a great job of being camerawoman whilst they pysched themselves up to be daredevils.

So there’s definitely a multidimensional feel to Melbourne should you look for it. The glamorous feel in the CBD is entirely different to the rugged beach and cliff faces of the peninsula, while there are hipster and ex-pat corners of the city that suit all walks of life. Will I move there for a life of coffee culture, wine bars and beach excursions? I’ve not made up my mind yet but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

Bali, Gili and Lombok: exploring the Indonesian islands

Sat below Malaysia on the collection of broken islands that make up Indonesia, Bali is somewhat of a traveler’s haven. Due to the closeness of the countries and cheap flights between them, it originally became popular with Australians – and apparently Snoop Dogg who my friend saw at a beach bar and who I unsuccessfully tried to catch a glimpse of. Now word’s well and truly out and it’s hardly a surprise tourists flock to Bali – beautiful beaches, temples in abundance and prices that aren’t much different to the rest of Southeast Asia. I regularly paid £1 for a beer and picked up patterned shorts and sarongs for less than £2 per garment.

While Indonesia conjures up images of an exotic land, some would say Bali has become overrun by the tourism trade. Indeed, in some places you could be in Thailand or dare I say it, Magaluf. Anyone who’s been to Kuta (which is probably anyone who has flown into nearby Denpasar airport) will be familiar with nightclub, Sky Garden: sticky floors, free-flowing alcohol and drunken tourists.

I say this like I didn’t have a good time.  It was £5 for an unlimited buffet and an open bar, so I can safely say I did. Every night at the Sky Garden boasted a different theme. As cruel as life tends to be (war, famine etc) we’d missed steak and seafood AND wings from around the world night and were subjected to German schnitzel night. If there’s ever evidence the universe is against you, its German schnitzel night. After my second helping of sauerkraut cabbage, the free bar was the only way to go.

Bowling home many hours later with three on a scooter, I can see the appeal of unpretentiously tacky Sky Garden. I raised my smash-free plastic cup of horrible cheap vodka to it but had itchy feet to find a more authentic side to Bali. This wasn’t a walk in the park if I’m honest as, much like Thailand, tourist saturation is high. Indonesia is still a developing nation and in line with the rest of Asia, tourism is often the track to a better life. The wages tip the scales on a lifestyle in agriculture so because of this, English is widespread. As I’m used to by now, every man and – I’d imagine if he could talk – his dog can speak to you in English with marvelous fluency.

As tourists, we reap the benefits of flora and fauna-filled Bali, picking up what are bargains to us but to the Indonesians enable them to live more comfortably. But as is often the way, the authenticity is compromised. Burgers and pizzas flow from shopfronts and you know what? They’re good. They’ve cracked the stonebaked Italian oven; they’ve mastered the mojito, the sex on the beach, and even (much to my dismay) the German schnitzel. That’s not to say Indonesian food isn’t on offer if you want it (I’ll get to that) but it’s certainly an indicator of the growing tourist presence.

But on to the rest of Bali. I’m in love with Ubud. Like raving, can’t-get-enough, obsessed with the place. It’s just a small town surrounded by rice paddies but it’s as relaxing as it is pretty. I think I’ve found an authentic Indonesian spot here, though so have about 20,000 other travelers.

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A majestic temple in Ubud

Still, the quiet streets disturbed just by the buzz of weaving motorbikes aren’t all about shops and big scale ventures. They’re lined with Indonesian-style temples built with terracotta brick and feature thatched roofs and stone statues depicting Hindu gods such as Ganesha the elephant and many a cheeky gargoyle. Having seen a hell of a lot of temples of late – colourful Indian and lantern-lined Chinese to name but a few – I was excited by the completely different style, unlike anything I’d seen before. In contrast to the Buddhism of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and the  Chinese influences in Malaysia, Bali’s Hinduism was yet another thing that set it apart from its neighbours.

It wasn’t just temples that displayed this design of terracotta and stone however as the ornate architectural style could be seen on almost all of the buildings and guesthouses in town. Decorated doorways gave way into detailed courtyards with lily pools, smiling buddhas and gold leaf. I wasn’t sure where the houses of worship ended and functional buildings began and constantly found myself sneaking through open doors to examine the charming scenes behind.

Then there’s Ubud’s Monkey Forest where this happened. While not much more explanation is needed, the Monkey Forest is an area where tourists can walk around and watch monkeys in their semi-natural habitat whilst feeding them bananas and getting thoroughly climbed upon.

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My new companion

After a busy couple of weeks, Ubud became my unwinding-writing-wandering paradise. It’s probably also one of the cheapest places for picking up bargains, especially when you put your haggling skills to use. It seemed to be pretty easy to get goods for a third of the price quoted originally – and a good thing too as one lady went in at 70,000 rupiah (£4) for four pieces of fruit as a starting price.

As with most bargain hunting, the line between absolute essentials and unnecessary trinkets becomes blurred. Did I need that wall art, Buddha statue, those glass coasters or that photo frame holding cat?

I quickly cast such questions from my mind and continued haggling on elephant print tablecloths. Yes, it was cost effective to buy four!

So (with a slightly heavier backpack), it was on to the Gili islands. These gorgeous islands are well worth a visit and most backpackers on the circuit end up spending at least a few nights drinking and snorkelling around Gili Trawangan (Gili T).

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My favourite spot on Gili T

There are three islands in total: Gili T which is the biggest and boasts the most backpacker hostels and generally the most to do. Gili Air, it seems, is more popular with honeymooners as a result of its spectacular resorts, and Gili Meno is a mere drop in the ocean, home to very little at all – aside from a turtle breeding centre – so is perfect for those looking to escape and find the ultimate peace and quiet. Apparently you can walk from one end of Meno to the other in just 15 minutes. We opted to stay on slightly bigger Gili T which can still be walked around in an afternoon and from which we could take advantage of the nightlife which the smaller islands didn’t offer so much of.

Gili T reminded me a bit of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand for anyone who’s been. Streets lining the seafront served Western cuisine, sold souvenirs galore, and offered massages and snorkeling excursions. I can’t even imagine what the island would be like if tourism didn’t exist.

Measuring 3km in length and 2km in width, Gili T can be easily explored. The locals can’t hide away (there are approximately 1,500 residents) so have become increasingly accustomed to being outnumbered. Whilst spending a day making my way around the island, I met a few little girls who wanted to give me flowers and take photos with me. Amidst the paradise of the tiny Indonesian ocean, the girls (aged about six) knew just one word of English: selfie.

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My Indonesian pals

What have we done to the world? I had to laugh.

Unfortunately, the kid’s parents wouldn’t let me take them back to the UK so we continued our adventure around the island, stopping at beaches along the way. One of my favourite parts of the day (if not my life) was venturing across ‘turtle point’ which is famous for the large population of graceful turtles who swim right up to the shore. I spent a magical few hours with my mask and snorkel hovering alongside enormous specimens which moved peacefully through the water either oblivious or uninterested in their human guests. Even if you weren’t snorkelling you could see their large shapes beneath the water as they broke the surface to poke their heads up for air.

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A turtle we spotted whilst on the three island boat trip

We also embarked on a three-island boat trip which saw us snorkel around Gili Meno and Gili Air, stopping to follow turtles and marvel at the colourful corals and shipwreck remains.

Bali is also a popular surf destination, though I knew in advance that I had about as good of a chance of staying upright riding a wave as a dyslexic did at spelling dyslexia. For those who are more sporty than me (that would be everyone), one of the island’s main attractions is the famous swell that keeps surfers coming back time and time again.

I tried twice at owning my board and rocking the surfer babe persona. Our instructor told my friend that we were ‘beautiful’. At the time of comment, I was lying in the shallows with my hair all over my face like cousin IT having just been destroyed by a wave. So I think his comments spoke louder about Indonesian guys fascination with Western girls than it did my surfer babe routine.

Anyway, this one time I kind of crouched up on my board for all of about two seconds so that was good.

Let’s dwell on what I do better: satisfying my stomach.

Indonesian food is very similar to Malaysian food. Even the languages relating to the dishes overlap. Anything ‘nasi’ means rice; anything ‘goreng’ is fried, so you can piece together the phrases to have a general understanding of what you’re ordering. There’s a lot of repetition too; ‘cay cay’ means sautéed veg and ‘gado gado’ means greens with a peanut sauce.

One of my favourite things about Indonesia was the warungs. Simply street buffets, they’re reminiscent of those in Malaysia but with more of a snack focus. Instead of picking hearty curries, rice and side dishes, you tend to choose a variety of dishes and get a small portion of each. Popular ones included spicy chicken salad, fried corn, calamari, meat on sticks, whitebait and greens with oil and chili. Commonly, you’d help yourself to five dishes for about 20 rupiah (£1).

One place that boasted a little more authenticity and an escape from the tourist trail was Lombok. By far the biggest island off Bali, the Gilis are mere specks in comparison. From Gili T, a forty minute ferry took a hungover bunch of us across the water to Lombok jetty but a four-hour taxi was required to take us to our town of choice. Buses aren’t really a thing in Indonesia but pile a few of you in a taxi and it’s just as cheap. The only drawback to travelling alone in Bali would have been covering the costs of taxis for just one – an experience I encountered once after my friends had left. An hour and a half taxi journey set me back around £12 – a high price by Southeast Asian travel standards. Shuttle taxis with eight or so passengers are common but only from certain areas and sometimes just once a day. So it’s a mixed bag when getting about alone.

Still, travelling around Lombok was certainly one of its charms. Rather than the teaming Westernised streets of Kuta and Gili, the views around Lombok were purely natural and you could drive for long periods of time without man-made influences breaking up the lush, green hillside. Our trip to Indonesia fell in rainy reason which at first didn’t seem ideal (though to be honest in a 10-month trip, at least one destination is likely to be out of peak season) which, apart from a few showers, didn’t affect us hugely. Locals also told us that in rainy season Lombok is far greener and beautiful than in dry season when the land is dry and arid. So the timing of our trip actually swung in our favour.

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Greenery around the island

Lombok was also a great place for local life. Passing through towns and villages we saw bustling local markets and sleepy settlements where adults, children and animals got on with daily life, for the most part undisturbed.

With just two nights on Lombok we didn’t have time to do it justice. We spent our time surfing and staying in a small town with the same name as mainland Bali’s Kuta, where there were a few hostels and a couple of pizza restaurants with English menus but nothing of any competition to Bali’s more touristy spots.

It was interesting to compare not just the places but the people on the islands. A surf instructor named Swell (I presume not his real name) on Lombok told us he’d been married since 18 and now aged 21 was a father. He told us this was very normal.

Bull (also probably not his real name) was a tourism worker from Gili T that we had the treat of running into. Bull described his brother marrying a Westerner as if it were the ultimate prize, and told us that at 23 he didn’t want to settle down yet and would rather continue his current lifestyle of drinking with tourists and having sex on the beach. Too much information from Bull but I’ve heard other Asian guys who work in tourism and have had exposure to Western values draw the connection between not settling down and having the ultimate freedom – something that goes against their more traditional morals.

One local before has told me ‘If I get married I can have one woman but if I don’t then I can have many’.

No doubt some backwards cap, tank top-wearing tourist had unleashed these words of wisdom on him.

Not that I want these people to be stuck in the past but I just wish someone had opened Bull’s eyes to the modern world after our holiday, as he was kind of creepy.

Anyway, my point is that Swell had had less contact with Westerners on Lombok and his lifestyle stayed true to local norms, whereas Bull had seen a different way of life on touristy Gili T and was now replicating it.

We finished our trip in Seminyak, a town on the mainland just 20 minutes from capital, Kuta. It offered a relaxed pace far from Kuta’s hectic and tacky streets but wasn’t far away should you wish to dance the night away at tacky Sky Garden (which we did).

I don’t know which bit of Bali I preferred. The mainland has plenty of spots of interest such as busy and bustling temple town Ubud, whereas Gili T presents a fun and friendly island paradise – but only on Lombok did I see local Indonesian ways of life and feel we’d made it off the tourist track. Doing all three is clearly the only way to see it all, I’d say. Two weeks was great but I could have done plenty longer especially with so many other areas in Indonesia aside from Bali to explore, such as the island of Java and Borobudur’s ancient temple site. Until next time, Indonesia!

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A final shot of one of Ubud’s religious shrines

My time at scuba school…

 


Ever since I spent an hour diving at the Great Barrier Reef in 2009, I’ve been fascinated by the underwater world. It was a spontaneous decision at the time – I was on a snorkelling trip and hadn’t even considered diving but when the opportunity was presented I thought, why not? I was blown away by the calm of the ocean: no chatter, no questions, barely any sound at all, making it infinitely easier to concentrate on the sights around you.

After my brush with the ocean, I was determined to dive again. I wanted to get qualified; I even said I’d love to work as a dive instructor. But departing on this trip six years later I hadn’t dived since. My more recent adventures had been based in North America, Europe and China and the opportunity hadn’t arisen, but I knew whilst travelling around Asia I’d have plenty of chances to develop my hobby.

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Wearing my wetsuit underwater

Thai island, Koh Tao, is well known for being one of the cheapest places in the world to complete your four-day Open Water Diver Course which teaches you to set up your dive equipment and problem solve underwater. Once you’ve got your Open Water certificate you can take part in Fun Dives anywhere in the world and are no longer restricted to basic and more pricey introduction sessions. Bottom line – an Open Water licence is an essential for avid divers.

PADI (the Professional Academy of Diving Instructors) is the most well-known company offering the course, but SSI (Scuba Schools International) offer the same qualification which is also recognised worldwide. SSI companies claim to offer a more flexible approach, not restricting divers to certain tests on certain days, and promote a safer approach to diving, recommending a slower rise to the surface after diving to avoid decompression sickness – something which can be nasty. Prior to my course I thought ‘PADI’ was just part of the name of the Open Water course, but after signing up at Big Blue, one of the main dive centres on Koh Tao, I found out that they were an SSI venue and learnt the differences between the two. SSI worked for me but I’m sure PADI do the same job for divers who learn with them.

So to summarise – Koh Tao is great for learning to dive cheaply. I think there are spots in the Philippines and Egypt which might be equally as cheap but compared to more costly sites, Koh Tao is perfect for penny-pinching backpackers like myself. Totalling around £180, the course took me from beginner to qualified diver in four days and included a mixture of practical and theory-based learning, as well as my onsite dorm accommodation for the four nights.

We began on the first evening of the course by watching a couple of videos, meaning it was more of a three-day course with a video evening tagged along. The videos were ever-so-slightly out of the 80s and reminded me a bit of ones you’d watch at school but did the job of filling us in on the basic health and safety concepts, as well as useful information on ecosystems and the ocean. We had a question and answer sheet which could be answered by the information from the video and our handbooks. Our homework was to complete the question sheets to prepare us for our theory exam on day three which required a pass to gain our certificates. As it turned out, the test wasn’t too tricky. We only needed 80% to pass and most of the questions were fairly basic – relating to basic safety, dive equipment, currents, waves, ocean conservation, breathing and safely entering and exiting the water. Without any real revision most of us managed to get over 90% and were one step closer to qualifying.

On the afternoon of our second day on Koh Tao we hit Big Blue Dive School’s pool to learn the essentials and get to grips with the practical skills we needed to get by underwater. I vaguely remembered the process of breathing through a regulator from my Australian dive experience but skills like clearing your mask should water get into it were also an important part of the course.

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Wearing my mask and dive system at the ocean bed

First came setting up our equipment. The dive system centres around the BCD (a buoyancy control device) which in simple terms is a jacket that can be inflated or deflated depending how light or heavy you need to be in the water. Attached to the BCD is your air cyclinder (very important – oxygen is obviously a big essential), a regulator mouthpiece to breathe through and an emergency regulator should the first one cut out. The breathing regulators feature mouthpieces which sit between your teeth and a button on the front which can be pressed to dispel water (which is useful if you’ve taken it out underwater for any reason) so that you don’t suck it in.

Also attached to the BCD is a controller to manage the inflation of your vest, and a gauge showing your remaining air supply and your current depth. As you can imagine, monitoring your air levels are pretty crucial and once the gauge shows a psi of 50, the protocol is to find a safe place to begin your slow assent to the surface. Knowing your depth is also important especially as Open Water divers are only allowed to descend to 18 metres. To go down to 30 metres you need to complete your Advanced Open Water Course which, while it would have been cool to continue my diving education, cost another £180. I’m unsure as to how much better the sights actually are in those extra 12 metres but talk of exploring submerged shipwrecks definitely could inspire me to do my advanced in the future, maybe on a different trip when I’ve had the chance to save up again.

Once we’d learnt how to set up our BCDs we had to learn the protocol for a buddy check with your dive partner – something you do before every dive whether you are a beginner or a pro. Me and my buddy from the group, Adam, were responsible for checking the set up of each other’s equipment as any errors could affect our safety underwater. Gee taught us the ‘Burgers With Relish And Fries’ mnemonic for our buddy check, although as we were in Thailand remembering it as ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas’ helped jolt some people’s memories.

‘B’ was for BCD which meant we had to check each other’s jackets were inflating and deflating properly via the inflate and deflate buttons. We then had to breathe into them manually to ensure we could control our buoyancy above or below water should a problem arise with the air supply. ‘W’ stood for weights. This check involved making sure the weight belts we wore (these are needed to balance out the air in your cylinder that causes you to float) were attached properly, could be reached easily and were secured for a right hand release – the correct position should you encounter problems and need to ditch your weights to make an emergency assent to the surface.

‘R’ was for releases, and meant we needed to check each other’s BCDs were securely fastened in all the necessary places: the waist Velcro, the waist clip belt, the chest clip and the clip securing our air cylinders. ‘A’ stood for air. Before diving we had to check each other’s air supply smelled fine, then breathe deeply from the regulator whilst watching the display gauge to ensure it wasn’t fluctuating or going down rapidly as this might indicate a leak. Lastly, ‘F’ stood for final check. Did anything look unusual or wrong? Were our flippers and mask on hand and ready to go?

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My friend diving in all her equipment

Once we understood the essential procedures, it was time to take to the pool to begin practicing for our skill test, which would eventually take place at the bottom of the ocean (well 18 metres down into it). One of the key skills was to learn how to clear our masks should water get into them whilst diving. Water getting into your mask can present major problems as not only is it uncomfortable, it means you can’t see. Which would certainly stop you from enjoying your dive and staying safe by communicating with your buddy. Bottom line – if water gets in, it needs to be cleared. This is actually pretty easy but can be daunting at first. Instead of breathing in and out of your mouth through the regulator like you usually would, you need to look downwards and whilst placing two fingers on your mask to keep it secure, take a deep breath in through your mouth then exhale firmly through your nose whilst then looking upwards to expel the water as bubbles. A full clear could require this to be done a couple of times.

Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, I found that introducing a change to my breathing pattern had a habit of throwing me. Breathing out through my nose made me instinctively want to breathe back in through my nose (something which would cause instant choking under water – not ideal) and even though it sounds simple, the effect of being in a test scenario plus the pressure of a wrong move putting you in danger all made the process harder for my mind to compute. In the pool I kept trying, failing and bobbing up to the surface to breathe – something which was fine in the shallow waters but wouldn’t work for the real deal.

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A shot taken during one of our dives

By the end of the day I was getting more confident and moving on to skills like sharing air underwater should your buddy’s cut out for any reason. The recommended procedure is to gesture to your buddy  with a slashing across the neck motion. Seeing this, your buddy should take a deep breath and immediately pass their mouthpiece to you, then reach for their own emergency regulator for themselves. Then, holding on to each other’s BCD vests, begin a slow and safe assent to the surface. On arrival there, you’ll quickly inflate your own vest then orally inflate your buddy’s as they may be unable to inflate it themselves if their air supply is compromised.

After our second day in the pool and our theory exam on the morning of the next day, we took to the sea on the afternoon of day three. I was still feeling apprehensive about the mask-clearing test where we’d have to completely remove our masks at 18 metres, replace them then fully clear them. As it turned out the test was the least of my worries as I was faced with the problem for real. Almost immediately after entering the water for the first time and starting to drop down, my mask managed to fill up with water whilst I was adapting to the environment and waiting for my ears to pop as I acclimatised. I panicked at first, unable to see clearly and just wanting to head up to the surface but knowing it was probably a fail if I did. To make matters worse, none of the group noticed I was struggling and were in the process of swimming off without me. I decided this was make or break – I had to sort it out so thought slowly, followed the steps of breathing in through my mouth and out through my nose to blow bubbles out from under the mask… And it worked! Once I’d mastered it, I felt much more confident. By the time the tests came around I was a pro and felt calmer about the dives in general.

After two dives on the afternoon of the third day and two more on the morning of the fourth day, we were qualified by lunchtime. The dives were a mix of enjoying the underwater world and the sights it had to offer, and showing Gee we had the skills to pass the assessments. As well as the mask-clearing test, Adam and I successfully shared air in a mimic scenario of one of ours running out, and hovered in the water to demonstrate our control of our buoyancy and balance.

A couple of people in the group had problems acclimatising their ears and feeling them ‘pop’ on the way down: a common problem for many divers. It can be dangerous to continue your descent if you can’t do this, but you can’t pass the Open Water without reaching the 18 metre bottom point so its something that can hold back learners. Luckily, those struggling overcame their problems and all six of us in the group passed. Gluttonous pizzas and beers were well-deserved!

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Some fish spotted near the surface of a dive

We even played some games during our qualifying dives, which Gee explained before going into the water (communicating them in dive sign language would definitely have left us a confused bunch). One was an underwater horse race where we split into three pairs and one of each of the pairs had to swim above the other holding their BCD vest like a saddle, whilst the bottom person pretended to be a horse and raced to the finish line. Games like these made our dives fun and kept us from stressing over the tests.

So there you have it – whether you learn with SSI or PADI and on Koh Tao or elsewhere, your Open Water Course will probably follow a similar format. As well as being a cheap location for taking the course, Koh Tao also offers beautiful beaches, world-renowned snorkeling spots, a messy nightlife and beautiful sunsets. If you’re going to have to do homework, what better view to do it to?

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The view from Big Blue Dive School

Tribes, treehouses and trekking in Taman Negara

Soon after arriving in Kuala Lumpur someone told me about Taman Negara, a 135 million-year-old tropical rainforest and protected national park in central Malaysia.

Having spent much of the last few months in cities and touristey towns and especially having just arrived from Thailand, going off grid and escaping the smog of the city seemed appealing.

As it turned out, I hadn’t realised just how off grid I’d be going.

There were a variety of tour packages available – a free and easy pass which included your travel and accommodation and allowed you to sort your activities separately; a day trip; a one-night trip; and the best value package – a three-day, two-night trip including hostel accommodation, making it cheaper than the shorter options which were based in hotels.

So it was decided – I was off to vanish into the vast Malaysian jungle for three days. The park measures up at seven times the size of Singapore and is home to tigers, elephants, leopards, a network of native tribes and an abundance of creepy crawlies (it’s a good thing I’m not scared of spiders or snakes as I was about to encounter plenty).

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A view of the treetops on our jungle trek

We set off from Kuala Lumpur bright and early from the Han Travel office and after a warning that the roads would be bumpy and a lot of screeching and flying around when this proved to be true, we arrived at Kuala Tembeling jetty where we stopped for lunch. We ate rice and chicken which we yet to realise would be our every meal for the next three days. Much like Ross and Rachel (but were they?), chicken rice and I are now on a break.

From Kuala Tembeling we hopped aboard a thin, wooden boat and settled down for a three-hour ride down the river. The muddy waters reminded me of the Mekong which winds all around Southeast Asia. Just like the Mekong, locals popped out to climb into boats and use the river for transport, catch fish, collect water and wash clothes (though quite frankly I’d need to re-wash anything that had come into contact with the murky brown water). I’d never thought much about the uses of rivers before this trip but it’s no coincidence they people live as close to them as possible – before roads, plumbing and drinking water, we’d have been in trouble without them.

In my tour group were two Swiss girls, Vera and Angela and three Belgian guys, Nebil, Jamal and Osma. I first spoke to the boys when one of them turned round to me on the boat and said ‘Can I offer you a chocolate biscuit?’

No friendship should start any other way if you ask me.

During the journey we admired the sprawling rainforest lining the riverbanks and watched lazy water buffalo enjoy a mud bath in the shallows (very detoxifying and great for the skin I’d imagine).

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The river view whilst on our three-hour boat ride into the forest

Eventually we arrived in Kuala Tahan, the launching point for our jungle activities which comprised of a few hotels and a tourist information centre. We pulled into the jetty where some floating restaurants bobbed on barrels, dolling out our rice and chicken fixes for our next couple of days’ lunches. As we were staying in hostel accommodation I was expecting to be a bit more in touch with the outside world than if we were staying, for example, in a village community or homestay. For that reason I hadn’t particularly mentioned to anyone where I was going, assuming I’d be on the Wi-Fi whilst at the resort and could keep people posted when I got there. On arrival however, we were told the Wi-Fi was ‘down’ – which seemed to be its permanent status. Due to our activities being a long walk away and a pick-up collecting us each morning, there was no chance to seek out signal and inform my loved ones that I wasn’t a missing person.

Some members of the group marveled over how fantastic and free they felt being out of Wi-Fi zone. I hear that too but I’d have felt slightly more fantastic had I not been able to predict that my Mum would probably soon be on the phone to the Malaysian Embassy assuming I had been recently kidnapped.

Anyway, when I wasn’t inadvertently heading towards a police investigation, I was reaping the benefits of the world’s oldest rainforest. We began the activities with a jungle walk on our first evening. Donning trainers, grabbing our torches and smearing ourselves in bug spray, we met our guide and headed towards the squawking, buzzing and murmuring jungle. En route, we passed a black and white animal which was the same size as a horse with a nose a bit like an elephant, and was standing near to the hotel accommodation eating from a tree. Weirdly, no one seemed to acknowledge that we were clearly passing by a mythical beast so I stopped the tour guide for an explanation as to said beast. He told me it was a tapir – something I’d definitely heard of before but not seen so far on my Asia travels, and certainly not wandering about in the wild.

Once we entered the jungle our guide had a great eye for spotting insects and mammals I’d never have noticed in the dark. Some of these were very cute including a sleepy slow loris which clambered through the branches. Some were less cute – scorpions I’m looking at you. Our guide used UV light to make the black-skinned scorpions glow white – far easier to spot on the dark ground. Pincers and all, the scorpions measured a good few inches and I was more than happy to stand my distance away from them. We also saw a collection of snakes and spiders so the walk was certainly not for anyone with phobias – although it could have been a good place to overcome them.

We stopped at the Than Hide in the hope of seeing bigger animals in the open space in front of it. We spied three or four deer grazing, their eyes glowing in the torchlight. Unfortunately, that was our lot – apparently leopards are sometimes seen but I’d be surprised if they’d show themselves with our chatter and torches, and while elephants and tigers do reside in the park, they live much further out in the dense woodland. I had plenty of questions for our guide – what did the various animals eat? Had he ever seen a tiger, and when? Did they have problems with poachers? Did native villagers ever come into contact with wild animals and did they prove dangerous to the people? I imagine the poor guy was relieved when I finished quizzing him.

Taman Negara was certainly not a nightlife hotspot. Short of buying a beer from the resort fridge and sitting on a wicker chair to drink it, other nighttime options included reading, going to bed… and that was about it. Earplugs were an essential as a pack of giant bugs continually seemed to get confused by electric lights and crash into them repeatedly whilst making a high pitched squeaking noise. For relatively small animals they were insanely loud and woke us up through the night, along with other eerie jungle noises.

Still, we were up early for breakfast and our full day of activities which began with a daytime trek and canopy walk. During our trek we encountered even more wildlife and reached some fantastic spots to see the view, though I’m not sure I’ve ever sweated so much in my life thanks to the humidity of the forest. We ventured across a series of canopy walkways which were a real experience. Some of them were hanging what felt like miles above the treetops sending my stomach lurching as I glanced down.

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One of the canopy bridges we walked across on our trekking morning

The bridges were perfectly safe but could certainly be described as ‘rickety’, swinging slowly with a mind of their own. We reached various treehouse stop points during the maze and each time it was a relief to be on land that wasn’t moving – they were also a handy place to take photos as we were urged to leave our hands free for holding on whilst on the walkways (you didn’t need to tell me twice!) Our guide teased us afterwards asking us how brave we’d been and saying he’d heard us screaming from his position at the finish post.

After lunch (no prizes for guessing what) we headed out on the second part of our day: meeting a local tribe followed by ‘rapid shooting’ (heading over rough waters in our long, thin boat – an activity we’d been told to expect to get wet during). I’d seen a lot of similar local tribe trips advertised in Thailand and hadn’t been sure what to think or expect of them. Surely a local tribe’s authenticity is compromised by daily groups of westerners spilling into their homeland, gawping and taking selfies. I imagine the tour companies ensure the locals are on form each day, partaking in traditional activities and living out life like a show. I felt relieved when the people we met seemed happy and smiley rather than seeming frustrated at our being there. The group who live within Taman Negara National Park are known as the Batek tribe, of which there are predicted to be between five and seven hundred members. Instead of living together as one large village, they’re split into various community groups, often of around 40 to 60 people who stay in regular contact with other branches of the group. Keeping in touch is purely old school of course – and done by visiting each other and passing messages via word of mouth (certainly no Facebook and Whatsapping here).

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Some of the local homes in the tribe’s village

The settlement we arrived at was nestled by a river bend and comprised of a few basic houses: wooden, makeshift and topped with bamboo leaves. Some members of the tribe were out hunting or gathering in other spots in the forest, but a few toddlers, teenagers and women were at the camp, seeming to relax and chat with their neighbours.

I was fascinated as the tour guide told us about their lifestyles. All their meals were collected from the forest and they ate mainly fish and yams, but sometimes monkey and deer. The children didn’t attend schools. They rarely entered civilization, and if they did it would be one or two members only going as far as the local village. They had no books, no literacy, the teenagers had never seen a bar, a phone, a computer, a video game, a city. They’d never had a geography lesson so I can’t imagine they knew where they were in the world; they’d never encountered media so I wouldn’t think they’d know how other people around the world live, or that other lifestyles are different to their own.

Again, I had so many questions. It was the complete opposite to when a teacher or lecturer asks ‘any questions?’ and an awkward silence hangs in the air. What did they do for healthcare? (The leader of the tribe is versed in knowledge of health and ailments from his predecessor and also takes the role of ‘shaman’ and people in the town who are ill come to him to be healed). What happens during childbirth? (The women give birth in the forest behind trees and six out of ten babies tragically die in the process). What are relationships like? (Young people get married between 16 and 18 and a confusing process of courtship was explained to us in which a young girl usually tells a friend she likes a male member of the community and the friend will tell the girl’s parents, as the tribe are particularly shy and direct exchanges over personal issues are rare. Once the bond is determined, marriage will take place soon after.)

Where do the tribe buy their relatively modern-looking clothes? (In markets in the nearest town on the rare occasions members make a visit and bring back supplies and attire for the others). How do they buy them without jobs and bank accounts? (They bring tradeable items from the forest such as sandalwood and tree sap – used to make incense – to the village and exchange these for things they need). What is their religion? (Animistic – no specific gods but a religion based around the spiritual properties of nature and objects). What happens to the bodies of the dead? (They are left in specially constructed tree houses which serve as graves). What do people do all day? (If they’re not adult men who go hunting, they sit and around, chat and socialise).

It all blew my mind. Watching a boy who couldn’t have been older than about 14 or 15 walk through the clearing in jeans and a t-shirt, he could have walked down a street in London and not have turned a head. But he probably had never heard of London and would have been shocked by the sight of a skyscraper, a tube station, a blend of ethnicities, restaurants and bars. His whole life was based in the jungle learning how to hunt and leading a lifestyle we’d find incredibly basic. With his friends he sat in a hammock smoking a cigarette and the smoke hung in the air for ages amidst the tree canopy. If I never went to school, uni or work, I think I’d have to take up smoking to pass the time too.

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A teenager from the village showing us how to light fire with dried grass and friction

Our guide spoke to the locals in Malay (they speak a basic level of the national language but mainly their own dialect) and a teenage boy gave us a demonstration of start a fire without a match or lighter. He then showed us how to use a blowpipe: a long thin contraption used for hunting and shooting animals. The body of the tool is made of bamboo and hollow to allow the dart to shoot down it, while the dart is made from bamboo sharpened into a lethal spike and filed down with a sandpaper-textured leaf. When blowing down the tube to send the dart shooting out, the locals aim away from the animal’s central body to avoid poisoning the meat, instead aiming for a leg and tracking the animal until it dies a short while later. We all got the chance to try out the blow pipe but my aim wasn’t great – I’m not sure I’d get by in the jungle.

It makes me think just how convenient it is to buy a chicken fillet at Tescos.

I joke, but it is crazy how much time and effort goes into the process of staying alive when you’re completely self-sufficient. Our society has your back if you’re not good at hunting (which I think applies to basically everyone), cooking or healthcare as we have people who are good at all those things. If everyone has one skill each, you’ve got someone to do everything for you, and you can give back with whatever you are good at. Here, these people have to be good at every essential task, leaving no room for luxuries. Simply put, there are no opportunities for them to train as a Zumba instructor or a mosaic extraordinaire.

I’m getting very philosophical. I’d miss the Tesco’s cheese aisle far too much for this kind of lifestyle.

Back at the hostel we discussed the authenticity of the set up. One of the girls said that she found it slightly contrived – the people must have to take part in the same blowpipe demonstration every day, so the way they live is to some degree a performance. I agreed, but said if we want to encounter people who live like this, we’re limited in the ways we can do it. These communities aren’t mapped on Google; there isn’t public transport there; we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them; and we might offend them or even put ourselves in danger by trying to reach them independently. Visiting them via a tourist agency does of course decrease authenticity, but from our perspective isn’t this better than not having the experience at all? From their perspective they receive contributions from the tour companies and a level of comfort they might not otherwise. But it isn’t perfectly ethical I’ll admit.

I also wonder how much we can ever know about these communities as the only information we have is what the tribe choose to communicate with our tour guides. A portrayal of a very traditional society free of scandal was presented to us. If things they consider scandalous do occur: affairs, sex before marriage, gay relationships, crime, would they tell us? There’s no way to know without integrating into the community ourselves.

Finally, we rafted through the ‘rapids’ as our last activity of the day. I use the word rapids loosely, as they were both like a few bumpy waves. Two people were splashed. One person gasped loudly once. We probably hadn’t needed to put our valuables in a dry bag.

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Me on the boat as we left Taman Negara behind

The next day we exited Kuala Tahan via another three-hour river boat and a bus back to civilization. I was glad to eat something that wasn’t chicken rice and stop my Mum from activating an international search and rescue mission, but I’ll always think back on my time in the jungle and the locals we met there. It’s not for me to say our society is any worse or better than theirs but I’m glad of the opportunities we have in comparison. And our cheese aisles.

Melaka: 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 stalls, 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 recently been experiencing in hectic Kuala Lumpur.

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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 Melaka 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 Melaka 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 the best 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 Melaka’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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This photo needs no caption

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 Lumpur 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.