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Celebrations

I am delighted, overjoyed, over the moon to announce the arrival of my first grandchild, a son born to Mami and James at about 1 pm Tokyo time today, Sunday 18th October 2015. Many, many congratulations and love to them all.

Posted by MalcolmB 02:55 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Cambodia 2

Kratie, Siem Reap, Battambang

semi-overcast 32 °C

At first glance Kratie (pronounced krat-chay) seemed like yet another strange and peculiar Cambodian town, but first impressions turned out to be wrong and it turned out to be a busy little place with lots of charm. After a six hour minibus ride I was dropped close to the Silver Dolphin Guesthouse, a real backpacker dive, which was to be my home for the next couple of nights. My small windowless room which was feebly lit by a single bulb - possibly so you couldn't see the dirt, stank of the hundreds of travellers that had been there before me, and the family that ran the place, lovely as they were, were far more interested in their family life, particularly the year old baby, than they were in looking after their guests. The beer was warm and the food they provided was the worst I've had in months. But for $5 dollars a night, what more can you expect? Once I'd found alteralternative providers of food and drink the town began to grow on me and I wish I'd stayed longer. The main reason I came here was to see the river dolphins, which after hiring a motorbike and driving 15k north along the river bank and then hiring a boat to take me out into the middle of the river I did. There are very few of them left; in this part of the river about 20 to 25 and only about 100 or so along the whole stretch of the Mekong. It's strange and sad to think that unless something miraculous happens I will probably outlive the whole species. Conservation measures are being taken to protect them from fishermen, so here's hoping they will be successful.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to photograph any dolphins as they are too quick and I am far too slow. They surface every now and then, one at a time, with an audible exhalation of breath which makes one turn just in time to see a large forehead and small dorsal fin appear and disappear beneath the murky brown waters. Most of those that I saw were 20 metres or more away but one did make an appearance within ten metres. Up close you appreciate just how big they are; two and and a half metres full grown.

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Picture courtesy of Internet shows river dolphins near Kratie

I have been meaning to write about Cambodia's monetary system which in my first few days here I found incredibly confusing. Although they have their own currency - Cambodian riels - they prefer to deal in US dollars and almost everything you can buy is priced in them. You can pay in the local currency as well (and use a combination of both for the same transaction) but dollars are used far more often. This means that nearly everything costs a multiple of 25 cents and more often than not a whole dollar. Fortunately the exchange rate is 4,000 riels to the dollar which makes calculating reasonably easy. Some ATMS give you a choice of dollars or riels but most dispense dollars only.

And so to Siem Reap where I arrived in the rain, shortly after dark, following a full day on a rickety old bus on bad roadsThe highlight of the journey had been eating one of the legs of a fried tarantula bought by a fellow traveller at a roadside stall. It's difficult to describe what it tasted like but it had a meatier texture than I'd expected.

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Siem Reap is the most tourist oriented place I've yet come across in my travels, and not surprisingly, for it lies just 3 or 4 miles south of SE Asia's most famous attraction, Angkor Wat. Even in the low season there are hundreds of western and Chinese tourists here and the infrastructure caters for their every need. There are dozens of bars and restaurants competing for their custom centred around "Pub Street" - yes, really - and offering varying qualities of food and drink. As the night draws on one could almost imagine oneself back in an English town on a Friday or Saturday night as the hordes converge on the bars - except for the heat and humidity, that is.

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With lots of time left on my visa I decided to take things easy - what else have I been doing, you might ask - and not rush the sightseeing. And so after a couple of lazy days checking out the bars and restaurants I finally hired an electric bike (it is illegal for foreigners to hire proper motorbikes in Siem Reap - probably just as well) and headed out of town to first buy a 7 day ticket for $60US and then to the Rolous group of temples which lie about fifteen kilometres out of town. On the way I called in at market which had been recommended in the highest terms by the French guy who had rented the bike to me. I was a bit skeptical about its merits as I'd visited dozens of markets in the past few months and thought this would just be another of the same. However, it turned out to be not just the largest but the most varied and interesting market I've seen. At its centre were a large number of stalls selling gold jewelleryand these were surrounded by stalls selling everything imagineable, from meat and vegetable to clothes and shoes and everything in between. There were stalls selling fish (still alive) and crabs, some of which would manage to escape from their bowl and make a run for it only to be scooped up by a young boy and thrown back in with the others. Some that he failed to catch in time were crushed beneath the wheels of motorcycles. (I told yof those things were dangerous; especially when they come speeding at you in the narrow alleyways of a crowded market and you have to squeeze to the side to avoid becoming another casualty).

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After feasting my senses at the market I rode on to the temples taking care to stick to a steady 20 kilometres an hour. This is the optimum speed to get the most from the bike's battery and can give you a range of about 40 ks between recharges. Although the bikes are capable of 35 kph this quickly runs the battery down and severely limits their range. The streets of Siem Reap are not as chaotic as those of Saigon or Phnom Penh, for instance, but they are still challenging and you have to keep you wits about you. Traffic comes at you from all directions and any rules of the road that may have applied at home are quickly forgotten as you enter the frenzy of a crossroads, weave your way across and continue gratefully on your way.

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The Rolous temples are the oldest in the region and date back to the 11th century. Some are brick built and are in very poor condition, while others are constructed from stone and better preserved. Though small scale when compared to those that came later they give an idea of how temple architecture evolved and whetted my appetite for the following day.

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I decided to leave Angkor Wat until last and instead headed for some of the smaller temples further afield. Two of these stand out from the others: Bayon and Ta Prohm. Both are magnificent, but for different reasons. From a distance Bayon looks like a pile of rubble, but once up close and inside the temple grounds one begins to understand what it must once have looked like in its heyday. Long corridors and galleries connect sanctums, some still containing Siva lingams, (Hindu fertility symbols) or Buddhist images and steep flights of stairs carry you up the three different levels. 49 towers (originally 54) soar up to the sky, each with four faces carved into its sides facing the cardinal points and gazing out with enigmatic smiles over the jungle which now surrounds the site.

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Bayon Temple

When they were discovered by Europeans in the 19th century all the temples had been abandoned and had become overgrown by the jungle. Many have been restored but a decision was taken to leave Ta Prohm largely as it was found. It is therefore in a poor state of repair but fascinating for the way that trees have grown on the site, sometimes forcing their way between the stonework and strangling walls and buildings with their enormous roots. Of all the temples it is perhaps the most atmospheric.

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Ta Prohm Temple

The most famous of them all however, is Angkor Wat, reputed to be the largest religious building in the world. Back in the 15th century before the city was sacked it was the centre piece of a city of one million people (at that time London had about 50,000). From ground level it does nor appear to be particularly imposing but once inside and at a higher vantage point its true scale can be appreciated. It is huge!! The temple is encompassed by a continuous gallery whose walls are carved with the most exquisite bas reliefs detailing past battles and the Ramayana among other scenes. Inside this the central sanctum is reached by a series of different levels and some of the steepest stairs I have ever seen. From the top the view over the surrounding jungle extends as far as the eye can see. The whole thing is truly awe inspiring.

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Angkor Wat

Having had my fill of temples I decided to move on. This time to Battambang (pronounced "bat-dam-bong) by boat, first across the enormous Tonle Sap, the largest lake in SE Asia, and then up rivers and extremely narrow waterways, on a.scenic seven hour trip.

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A floating village on the way to Battambang

Battambang proved to be a very pleasant riverside city with a few example of French colonial architecture, but the main attractions lay just outside the city and so I hired a tuk-tuk and driver, Han, and set off to see them. First up was the "bamboo railway", a hang over from French times. It consists of a a single track railway, only a few kilometres of which are still operable, and which the enterprising locals have turned into a very profitable tourist attraction, although locals still use it to transport themselves and their goods between the ciliates on route. For $5 US a head (a mere fraction of that for the locals) passengers sit cross-legged on a bamboo platform which in turn sits upon a pair of dumbell like wheels. The rear wheels are driven by a fan belt attached to a six horse power engine and the whole thing rattles and clanks along over bumpy and misaligned rails at a top speed of about 25mph. Being a single track there is the problem of what happens when one meets a car coming the other way. This is easily solved - one of the cars is quickly dismantled and laid by the trackside as the other passes. It is then reassembled within a couple of minutes, it's passengers reboard and off it goes on its way The rule is that the truck with the least number of passengers has to give way.

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The "Bamboo Railway"

From there, my driver took me to see a fishing village and a tree which is the daytime roost of a couple of hundred fruit bats; its proximity to a Buddhist temple means the bats are protected despite the damage they do in the local fruit plantations, Next stop was an ancient temple reached by a strenuous and very hot climb of 358 steep and irregular steps. A few of the local kids armed with fans accompany tourists up and down wafting them with cooling air in return for a few riels.

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My fan servant

From there my tuk-tuk took (?) me along a long bumpy dirt road through beautiful countryside and past remote villages to Phnom Sampou, a large hill which rises from the flat farmland all around it and affords fantastic views from the complex of Buddhist temples on its summit.

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It is also the site of a killing cave where more Khmer Rouge atrocities took place. Previously a Buddhist shrine, the cave was then used to dispose of "enemies of the state". Victims were killed by a blow to the head and their bodies thrown though a hole in the roof into the cavern below. At the end of the war the remains of thousands of victims were discovered in this and two other caves nearby.

As dusk fell I was transported down the hill by motorbike (it was far too steep for tuk-tuks) to yet another cave, this time one with a very different purpose. It was home to millions of bats - four to six million according to estimates - and as the sky began to darken they started to stream out, hundreds per second. Apparently it takes well over half an hour for them all to leave the cave. Their destination is Tonle Sap lake some 30 to 40 miles away! Quite incredible.

And so ended my stay in Cambodia, another country that has captured my heart and imagination. The people have been wonderful, especially the children who always smile and say hello. It seems that the poorer the country, the friendlier the people. How strange. I will also miss the weird and wonderful statues that adorn roundabouts and other sites and rarely failed to provoke a smile. To finish the post here are a few more examples. The last one , still under construction, shows the terrors awaiting sinners in a Buddhist version of hell.

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Posted by MalcolmB 00:55 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Thailand 3

sunny 32 °C

By road the journey from Battambang to Koh Chang is about 260 kilometres and according to the Internet should take about 5 to 6 hours by car. My journey, however, took the best part of two days!! It started badly when the taxi that was to take me to the border with Thailand turned up twenty minutes late and the driver demanded $15 US instead of the $7.50 which I'd agreed with the guy I'd arranged it with the day before. With my hotel manager's help we negotiated it down to ten dollars and off we went - in the wrong direction! I was following our progress on the GPS on my tablet but couldn't ask him what was going on as he didn't speak a word of English. I just assumed he knew what he was doing and sure enough he did. He was picking up two more passengers from the northern edge of town. We then headed back into the centre of the city where the driver parked the car at a busy crossroads and got out to look for another passenger. He was obviously unwilling to set off before we had a full load. Half an hour later he took a phone call and we set off to pick up someone else less than 50 yards from the hotel I'd left an hour ago. This man wanted to deliver some things to the east side of town, again in the wrong direction. Finally, about an hour and half after he'd picked me up, we headed for the border. I'm glad to say the ride was smooth and uneventful and I was dropped at the Cambodia border post. There I was told I had to walk over to the Thai border post and ask if they would accept me into Thailand. If the answer was yes I then had to return to the Cambodian post where they would give me an exit stamp. I tramped across the two hundred metres of open ground in the blazing heat (by now it was early afternoon) and arrived at the Thai post where I was sent to about four different windows before someone decided to take responsibility and tell me I could enter Thailand. So now it was back to Cambodia for an exit stamp and then back to Thailand for an entry stamp and finally, after not a little anxiety on my part, I was back in Thailand. Not far to go now, I naively thought. My research had told me that I could get a bus from the border to a town called Trat which was fairly close to the ferry terminal for Koh Chang. But, of course, there were no buses, only taxis who were charging a ridiculous 2000 baht (£40) to Trat. There was no way I was going to pay that so I sat down to examine my options which appeared to be extremely limited. And then, after some minutes of inaction, the taxi driver told me that I could take a motorbike for 50 baht (which I haggled down to 40) to a place where a sorng'taa'ou - the local shared taxis - could take me to Chantanburi from where I could get a bus back to Trat. This meant quite a considerable detour but it seemed to be the only option, other than paying through the Jose, and so I climbed onto the bike for the four kilometre ride to the sorng'taa'ou stop where I had to wait an hour in a very down at heel roadside cafe before we set off for Chantanburi. I was dropped a short walk from the bus station where I saw a ticket window for buses to Trat where I a ticket and sat down to wait the 25 minutes for the bus. 40 minutes later the lady who had sold me the ticket came trotting across to inform me the bus had been cancelled. Pushing my money into my hand and apologising profusely she pointed in the direction of the minibuses at the other end of the bus station. I'd already seen two or three of these depart while I'd been waiting and the realisation that I could have been on one of them did little to improve my rapidly fraying temper. But forcing a smile for the lady, who was obviously embarrassed, I took my money and bought a minibus ticket. 90 minutes later we pulled into Trat where it was just beginning to get dark. By now I'd had enough and so decided to stay the night and continue my journey in the morning. 30 kilometres to the ferry port, half an hour to Koh Chang and 20 minutes to White Sand Beach, I reckoned, so I should be there in about two hours. But this estimate was to prove wildly optimistic. First there was a long wait as the only sorng'taa'ou driver heading for the ferry terminal wouldn't leave without a full load. After an hour or so it was obvious that this could take all day to achieve and so I hired the thing just for myself, paying 280 baht rather than the 50 it should have cost. Eventually I arrived at the ferry port where after another wait of about 40 minutes I crossed to Koh Chang. A sorng'taa'ou was waiting but much to my surprise there were only two passengers wanting to use it and, of course, the driver wasn't going anywhere unless he had at least six passengers and that meant waiting for the next ferry an hour later. I spent that hour praying that there would be enough people on the ferry and thankfully there were. I finally arrived at my guest house at 3.30 and logged on to my emails to discover the wonderful news that my first grandchild, Jack, had been born that morning. All the travails of the past two days were instantly forgotten.large_IMG_1650.jpglarge_IMG_1635.jpglarge_IMG_1641.jpglarge_IMG_1607.jpg

Nevertheless, after my exertions I felt I deserved some relaxation time and so spent the next eight or nine days on a beach that was almost deserted. It's still the low season here but the weather was great and my suntan is several shades darker.large_20151021172445.jpglarge_20151021172458.jpg
My beach and beach shack guesthouse

Much rested and, I have to say, a little bored by inactivity, I eventually boarded a bus to Bangkok where I spent a couple of days hanging around the Kao San Road before catching the overnight train to Malaysia and Penang.

Posted by MalcolmB 00:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Malaysia

semi-overcast 31 °C

By luck and good fortune rather than good planning, I managed to end up in Penang on the day before my 64th birthday. Many of you will know that this is where I was born, so being here on my birthday had some sort of symbolic meaning for me. I can't say it was nostalgic as I was only three months old when my parents and I left to return to England.

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Approaching Penang by ferry from Buttertworth - my first sight of Georgetown since February 1952

However, it was wonderful to see some of the places they would have known so well in the year or so that they spent here. Though the city of Georgetown has grown markedly, (population now around 750,000) and many high rise buildings have changed the skyline, there are still several areas such as Chinatown and Little India and many colonial buildings that are almost unchanged.
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Wandering the streets it was easy to imagine them 64 years ago, my mum in a floral print dress pushing me in my pram and my dad in his starched khaki uniform catching the ferry to Buttertworth on the mainland where he worked at the RAF station there. How I wished I had asked them more about their time here when they were alive, but with the little knowledge I had I was able to track down the hotel, the New Savoy in Hutton Lane, where they spent their honeymoon and where I was quite probably conceived (they didn't waste time - I was born 40 weeks after they married. An even more romantic possibility is that If it wasn't there it may have been on the beach at Batu Ferringhi. In her later years, and probably under the influence, my mum told her granddaughters, Alice and Holly, much to their delight, that she had once had sex on a beach. It transpired that it was at Batu Ferringhee, a mile long beach to the west of Georgetown where my parents would often spend their weekends. Perhaps I was conceived there - I do hope so.

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Was it here that it all began?

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Or perhaps here?

My parents loved their time here and I very quickly grew to love the city and the island. It is a vibrant mix of races, religions and cultures and to my eyes it seems to be a very tolerant society that works well. The Chinese form the majority followed by sizeable Malay and Indian communities. There is also a smattering of Eurasians and expats. Each adds to the whole, whether it be through the many fascinating temples, mosques and churches, or through the different types of food which make Penang one of the great culinary centres of Asia. In Little India one can feast on masala dosas or a banana leaf meal and mango lassi for less than a pound or in Chinatown visit a hawker food centre for Malaysian, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. The only drawback is that beer is relatively expensive in Malaysia, which being a Muslim country taxes alcohol heavily. I guess nowhere is perfect. The food centres are worth a mention. My favourite in Georgetown was the Red Garden Food Paradise. In a covered courtyard about 150 tables were surrounded by 30 or so kitchens offering a wide variety of food from many cuisines - you could even get fish and chips, English style. One chose a table and then set off to order from the various kitchens, usually pointing to the photos of their dishes, then quoting one's table number so your order could be delivered. Sitting down again, drinks waiters would take your order for beer or juices. Everything was paid for as soon as it was delivered thus eliminating that interminable wait for the bill and then your change at the end of a meal which can be such a pain. The whole thing is a great concept and i'm sure would go down very well in th UK. Anyone like to invest?

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While there are no "must see" attractions on the island there is more than enough to occupy one's time. The city obviously takes a lot of pride in itself and this is shown by its investment in street art - some in the form of murals and some as wrought iron sculptures that tell the history of various streets, such as Love Lane, often humorously. Just wandering the streets, tracking down and photographing the art works, became a favourite way of spending my time.

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There was always something of interest to see, whether it was the Chinese clan jetties that cluster along the shoreline and have been here for over 100 years, or the Chinese shophouses and temples, or the noise and chaos of Little India, or the very modern shopping malls at Gurney Plaza (they even have a large branch of Marks & Spencer where I bought two new shirts to replace those that have become very sun-bleached and rather threadbare). I know I'm biased but Penang soon became the high spot of my travels and it was with great sadness that after nearly two weeks I tore myself away. If there is one place in my travels that I could see myself living it has to be here! It has taken me 64 years to re-visit the island where I was born. I do hope my next visit will be very soon. If my heart belongs anywhere, then it must be here.

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My next port of call was the Cameron Highlands, an area of tea plantations, strawberry farms and cream teas. At an average height of 1500 metres above sea level it's climate is a great draw for Malaysian tourists and when I arrived on a Saturday afternoon the place was jammed with traffic. The temperature here rarely climbs above 21 °C or drops below 10 °C, though this is cold enough to necessitate wearing shoes for the first time since I was in the highlands of North Vietnam several months ago. There are three or four small towns up here, the largest being Tanah Rata where I stayed. It is little more than a main street with a few side streets branching off it and its whole raison d'etre is tourism. There are a few treks around the town and I attempted one of these. It was only supposed to take about four hours but it went remorselessly uphill over muddy and slippery trails that offered few views and after a couple of sweat drenched hours (despite the lower temperatures the humidity levels are sky-high) I decided the rewards weren't worth the effort and somewhat ashamedly I turned around and headed downhill for a cream tea. These are just one of the hangovers of the days when Malaya formed part of the British Empire and Brits established tea and rubber plantations in the area. The strawberry jam made with locally grown fruit which is a bit on the sour side was excellent, the scones were passable, but the cream very disappointing. One cafe even used canned cream (desecration!).

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From there it was back to the sultry heat of the lowlands and Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpar, or KL as it is popularly known. This is a huge city that is reaching for the sky. Wherever one looks cranes pierce the skyline as KL grows ever upwards. There are still areas where the old city can be seen but their days are numbered as the city's development rolls inevitably on and more and more skyscrapers soar into the clouds. In many ways it is an an impressive city and it's icon the Petronas Towers, two rockets waiting to blast off, is truly magnificent, but it seems to have forgotten about people in its relentless rush to modernise. The city is crisscrossed by six and eight lane motorways and train lines which make walking anywhere a navigational nightmare. There is a fairly good metro system which covers large parts of the city but its various lines are not always integrated which often means having to buy more than one ticket. Add in the poor signage which can have one wandering bewilderingly in circles and the experience of travelling around KL can become very wearisome. KL is also famous for its shopping malls and wandering around these modern temples to consumerism is a great way of escaping the heat and humidity. All the world's best known designer labels are represented and it is possible to imagine onself as being in any of the world's great cities. The Suria complex beneath the Petronas Towers even boasts a huge multi-screen cinema. I saw the new Bond film Spectre (how do they get away with producing such mindless, plotless and intellectually unstimulating tripe?) and The Martian which I hugely enjoyed. Such distractions make a very welcome change from the usual tourist sightseeing trail.

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I left KL with mixed feelings. On the one hand full of admiration for the progress made and on the other depressed by the dysfunctional urban jungle that some of the city remains. Give it another 20 or 30 years though and it could be one of the world's great cities. But this will probably only happen if they change their focus and start to put people before cars.

I almost forgot to mention the city's bird garden which they bill (intentional) as the world's largest walk through aviary. I spent a day here and was utterly captivated. The birds are so used to human presence that many of them approach to within touching distance. A very enjoyable day out.

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Malacca (Melaka), on the coast four hours by road from KL and about the same from Singapore, has a fascinating history. Controlled at various times by Malays, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malays again it has a rich tapestry of cultures upon which it has drawn. The dominant influence though is Nyonya, a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures which has made the greatest mark on the old city and resulted in some great fusion food on which I gladly indulged. The old town is a grid work of Chinese shophouses, some of which have been given over to tourism, but many of which still fulfil the same function they have for many years.

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Like Penang, there is a mix of cultures, religions and races, but to me at least, it lacked the vibrancy of Penang and felt like a bit of a backwater, one nevertheless very popular with tourists from KL and Singapore. Due to visa constraints I spent more time here than it merited. However, I did make one great discovery. On Friday and Saturday nights the main street is closed to traffic and stalls selling almost everything imaginable set up to offer their wares. Many of them sell food and one in particular sold chips fried in batter. This is probably the greatest culinary invention in history! Why has no one thought of this before? it is simply delicious!!! Now that the secret is out I'm hoping no one will set up shop before I get back to the UK and take it by storm with the greatest gastronomic treat since deep fried Mars bars. I'm thinking about taking out a patent.

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Malacca is also known for its cycle rickshaws which are decorated in a style that is so kitsch it almost defies belief. They look incredible during the daytime but at night they are lit up and blast out 80s disco music from their on board sound systems. A convoy of these, each playing it's own song as they trundle down the lanes is a sight to behold.

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And so that was Malaysia! Penang I loved, but the rest I found mildly disappointing. But perhaps that was my fault. After nearly a year on the road, with the exception of the month spent back in the UK in March/April, I can't deny that I'm getting a little jaded and travel weary. Homesickness is setting in and I'm beginning to miss family and friends more keenly. Motivating myself to go and see yet another temple is getting harder, but then I think of the things yet to come - volcanoes in Java, Komodo dragons, beaches in Bali and orang utans in Sarawak and I feel reinvigorated. Nevertheless, I am so looking forward to seeing James, Mami, Jack and Barbara in Tokyo in April.

Posted by MalcolmB 03:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Singapore

semi-overcast 34 °C

So far on this trip I have managed to stick to my £25 a day budget but doing so in Singapore was an impossibility. Other than transport on the amazingly modern and highly efficient metro system everything is about three or our times as much as cities such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. For example, the cheapest large bottle of beer I found was just over eight Singapore dollars (£4) and a room was 50 dollars (£25) when I am used to paying somewhere between £5 and £8. It was obvious that my budget was going to be blown apart but I decided that it's only money and I may never be here again so why let a few money worries get in the way.

Singapore is one of those places with wow factor, and then some! There is still a large colonial era area with many notable buildings such as Raffles hotel and the old parliament building and some of the old waterfront has been preserved. Areas of the city such as Little India and Chinatown add to the mix of races and cultures and contribute their own special flavours. But Singapore is nothing if not an ultra modern city and the numerous new skyscrapers provide a dramatic skyline. The most impressive of these is the Sands Marina Hotel with its three tapering towers supporting a boat shaped platform with a garden, swimming pool and observation deck. The view from here takes in the harbour with its hundreds of ships riding at anchor, the river, the sycrapers and large parts of the city and is simply stunning, especially as darkness falls and the city's lights go on. There are other prestige developments like the futuristic Gardens by the Bay with its two enormous glasshouses and metal and concrete trees.

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Raffles Hotel
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Central Business District
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Sands Marina Hotel
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Gardens by the Bay
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Singapore at night

Singapore is more than aware of its place in the world as does all it can to attract finance, business and tourism. It's airport is frequently voted the best in the world (agreed) and it is constantly striving to develop new attractions to encourage tourism. One of these is the River Safari which now forms the third part of Singapore zoo together with the regular zoo and the Night Safari. At the equivalent of £50 a head for the three it is expensive but we'll worth it. I spent nearly 12 hours wandering around the enclosures, most of which allow close and unobserved views of the animals, and finally got back to my room on the harbour side at 11.30 pm, foot sore and exhausted but very happy.

It has taken five weeks to get around to writing this blog entry, mainly because I found Singapore to be such a fantastic place that finding the words to describe it has been a real challenge. It'seems still astruggle so therfore I'll conclude it here and let a few more photos do the talking for me.
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Old Chinese shop house which are now very expensive private homes
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My hostel is on the waterfront beneath the white tower
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The view from my hostel
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Gardens by the Bay
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Clark's Quay
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Singapore Zoo
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Chinatown at night

Posted by MalcolmB 20:34 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

Indonesia 1

Java, Bali, Gili Air, Lombok, Komodo, Rincon, Flores

sunny 33 °C

Flying out of Singapore's Changi Airport and into Jakarta is quite a culture shock. Looking up at skyline pierced with dozens of new high rise buildings one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a modern city, and it's true that is developing at an astonishing rate. However, cast your eyes down to street level and a different reality becomes apparent. The roads are choked with endless streams of cars and motorbikes with horns blaring. The pavements are an obstacle course and it is usually far safer to walk on the edge of the road and take one's chance with the traffic than it is to risk falling into the storm drains through one of the many missing or broken manhole covers.
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Jakarta suffers badly from noise, dirt, pollution and on top of this there is almost nothing for the tourist to see or do. Even the public square in the centre of the city is just a huge expanse of shadeless, baking concrete with a very unimpressive pillar in the middle. Unbelievably, this took fourteen years to build. It is known locally as "Sukarno's last erection", so at least it provides some amusement (Sukarno was Indonesia's leader for many years).
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Sadly, and despite the fact that the people were very friendly, Jakarta is one of the most depressing places I've been, so let's move on.

After just one day in Jakarta I took an early morning train to Yogyakarta, a far more pleasant city with an area near the station which is largely dedicated to backpackers. This means it is possible to get western food which can be a godsend. I just can't get used to the idea of spicy fried rice for breakfast. Give me an English breakfast anytime.

There's not much to see in Yogya itself but a little way out of the city, in opposite directions, are two temples. While not on the scale of Anghor Wat they are nevertheless impressive. The first, at Prambanan, dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries AD and is dedicated to the Hindu gods Bramha, Vishnu and Siva. My American companion for the day, Shana, and I were guided around the site by two young students desperate to improve their English. In Indonesia especially, foreigners are often asked for video interviews by students as part of their English courses. Having their photo taken with a foreigner is another favourite and you can find yourself in the middle of a large group of Indonesians posing for numerous photos. While at Prambanan I saw an Indonesian dance performance of the Ramayana accompanied by a Gamelan band. Despite a couple of clunky moments it was rather good and the music and costumes were excellent.

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Yogyakarta street scene
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The temples at Prambanan
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The Ramayana

On the other side of the city is the Buddhist temple Borobadur, an amazing structure around a thousand years old. It is now in excellent condition having been taken apart stone by stone and then completely rebuilt by archaelogists. It is a great draw for school parties and student as well as Indonesian families.

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My next stop was a two hour local train ride away. Solo had little to offer other than a couple of rapidly decaying royal palaces which they should have been embarrassed to charge an entry fee for. And so it was on to Surabaya, a huge city at the eastern end of Java. It proved to be an interesting place, pats of it very modern but parts such as the old Arab quarter and Chinatown with dirty, crowded and chaotic streets packed with street stalls, traffic and people. There is also a factory where cigarettes are still hand rolled. The founder of the firm believed that smoking was beneficial to one's health, probably because he mixed tobacco with cloves which have an anaesthetising effect on the throat The factory is jammed with workers whose fingers move in a blur as they roll and pack cigarettes at an amazing speed. Also in Surabaya is one of the strangest attractions I've ever come across. Sitting on the bank of the river is a Russian submarine which was also used by the Indonesian navy before being retired. I walked right past it once without even noticing it. I guess one just don't expect to see such a thing in such an incongruous setting.

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Surabaya street scenes
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The Sampoerna cigarette factory
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What?!

Surabaya was meant to be the jumping off point for a visit to the Mount Bromo National Park; a spectacularly beautiful area of volcanoes and forest. Unfortunately, Mount Bromo decided choose that week to erupt and the park was closed to tourists. I hoped that I might catch a glimpse of it as I passed on a train bound for the ferry port for Bali but it was raining so heavily that visibility was limited to a few hundred metres.
It was still raining as the ferry crossed to Bali and the island was shrouded in cloud and mist. It wasn't supposed to be like this!

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My first view of Bali

In many ways though it set the scene for my visit. I found the island to be a disappointment - overdeveloped, overpopulated and far too many tourists. I guess timing my visit (unintentionally) to coincide with Christmas didn't help. There was one major highlight, though, and that was snorkeling at Pemuteran and Pulau Menjangan in the north west corner of the island. It's years since I've been snorkeling and I wasn't sure what to expec and my first impressions were not good. As I entered the water from the beach I was greeted with the sight of plastic wrappings of all sorts floating around on the sea-bed but as I swam deeper these gave way to a large variety of corals and the most amazing display of fish of every imaginable shape, size and colour. It was like being in a wild life documentary. At Pemuteran they are running a project to regenerate the coral, much of which has been destroyed by dynamite and cyanide fishing. Three dimensional metal grids and trellises, some supporting stone sculptures of Hindu gods, are submerged offshore and a small electric current is passed through them. This encourages coral growth and, judging by the amount of new coral growing on them and the number of fish that attracts, the project is proving to be a huge success. Pulau Menjangan, being part of a national park, has not been affected by the ravages of unscrupulous fishing practices and the coral reef here is in excellent condition and the number and variety of fish is staggering.
From Bali a large speed boat took me to Gili Air, one of three very small islands off the north west coat of Lombok - it takes about 90 minutes to walk around its perimeter. The Muslim population of the islands has seen the potential of tourism and they are exploiting it to the full. Apparently, the largest island, Gili Trawangan, has quite a wild party scene and what the locals think of the drunken excesses of western youth is anybody's guess, though no doubt they are happy to take their money. Gili Air is far more sedate, though there a a large number of bars and restaurants lining the beach and the whole place has become a tourist trap. Sadly though, the beach is not good for swimming as the sea is very shallow as the reef extends for about 150 to 200 metres from the shore before dropping vertically into the depths.

While on the island I ummed and ahhed about taking a four day boat trip to Flores before eventually deciding to go for it. I am so glad I did as it turned out to be the highlight of my travels so far.

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The boat, the LMS Bintang - named after the local beer - was basic in the extreme.

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Although there were half a dozen tiny box-like cabins with no room to stand most of us slept on thin mattresses on the top of the boat protected from the elements by a tarpaulin just three feet above the floor.

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In addition to a crew of five and our guide, a larger than life character called John Carlos who claimed to have once been a pirate off Somalia (I doubt this was true but can't entirely discount ii - he certainly looked the part) there were 22 of us. Seven English, four Italians, three Dutch, three Germans, two Indians, one Canadian, one Finn and one French. Most were in their twenties but there were few of us in my age range which made for a nice mix. For four days we sailed past beautiful coastlines, occasionally stopping to snorkel or hike in the jungle.

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On New Year's Eve we had a small party on board (we hadn't bought enough beer to make it a raucous one) and sat under a clear sky filled with billions of stars as the boat chugged along through a glass-like sea. New Year's Day was particuarly memorable. We had reached Manta Point where hundreds of manta rays congregate and hoped to see some. As we slowly cruised around the bay one of the crew sat on the prow of the boat looking for them. When he saw la group swimming by in the crystal clear water he would shout, "Manta! Manta! Jump! Jump!", and we would all hurl ourselves over the side of the boat, rise to the surface, adjust masks and snorkels and swim frantically after them. My first sighting was just a ghostly shape swimming quite a few metres below me and too far to see clearly. On the next jump I followed a pair and got a much closer view. I had given up trying to keep up with them and was aimlessly swiiming around when a group of mantas suddenly appeared right below me. They were only six or seven metre below the surface and were huge - five to six metre across. I started to count them and got to eight before becoming confused and starting again. About twelve enormous mantas swimming so close that it felt I could reach down and touch them. I swam with them for a few minutes before tiring and giving up the chase as they effortlessly disappeared into the distance. I climbed back aboard the boat with the others and we excitedly compaed our incredible and amazing experiences.

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(Thanks to Andy Paul Riley for the pic)
Later in the day as dusk fell and we anchored for the night a colony of thousands of friut bats flew overhead, adding to the wonders of the day.

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That night we had a proper party with plenty of beer brought out to the boat by a man in a small outrigger. We cleared him out lf his stock and sent him back to shore to replenish his cargo which once again we demolished.

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And so, slightly hungover, we arrived the following morning at the islands of Komodo and Rinca, the home of the famous Komodo dragons. We saw quite a few basking in the sun and taking it easy. They were all near the reception centre and despite the wardens' avowal that they didn't feed them, I have my doubts. It wouldn't be good for business to have disappointed tourists leaving without a sighting and so i think some where encouraged to come to a place where they could easily be seen. Neverthless, they are impressive beasts and i wouldn't want to get too close.

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Late in the afternoon we reached journey's end, Labuan Bajo in Flores, and many of us left the boat to find rooms in the town while some, including me, remained aboard for a night of free accomodation. Later that evening many of us met up for a grilled fish meal at one of the roadside eating joints which are set up for the night. I had a whole red snapper with calamari and fried potatoes washed down with ice-cold Bintang. One of the best meals ever! Over the next two or three days our group began to disperse to various destinations and I spent three days wandering around the town which is a magnet for scuba divers and boasts some excellent cafes and restaurants where i spent a lot of my time talking and eating with friends from the boat before flying to Sulawesi accompanied by some of the best memories of my life.

Posted by MalcolmB 05:32 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

Indonesia 2

Sulawesi

semi-overcast 30 °C

The capital of Sulawesi is Makassar in which I arrived in the evening after a flight from Labuan Bajo and a three hour stop-over in Denpassar, Bali. To put it politely, Makassar, which is huge with a population of 1.5 million, is a dump and I spent my only day there arranging a bus ticket to Tana Toraja. This involved a bemo (a beaten up mini bus which runs on a fixed route picking passengers up from the roadside) ride of almost an hour to the bus terminal (5000 ruppiah or 26p for a 5 mile journey). I managed to get the much prized seat next to the driver and after telling him where I came from he took much pride in telling everyone who climbed aboard. Given the large numbers of bemos that ply the roads and the relatively small number of tourists that come here having a foreigner on board must be a bit of a rarity.

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Indonesia (and quite a few other places) continually confounds my expectations and the bus to Toraja was unexpectedly luxurious with large, well uphostered seats that reclined to an almost horizontal position. Thus, the eleven hour journey to Toraja passed in comfort and I was even delivered right to the door of my guesthouse when we arrived in Rantepao at 8.00 that evening. The Wisma Maria guesthouse, however, turned out to be the dirtiest place I've had the misfortune to lay my head and I began to wonder if coming to Sulawesi had been a mistake. The following morning, without even bothering to shower as the bathroom was so filthy, I set out to find alternative accomodation which I did at the other end of town. This place was far nicer and from that moment things began to look up. During the four days I spent in Rantepao I hired a motorbike for three and explored the town and the stunning scenery around it. A couple of friends, Andy and Carolin, turned up and it was great to have some company in the evenings and swap stories about our travels in the few days since we had been in Flores.

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Toraja is famous for the lavish and very expensive funerals that are such an important part of the local culture. The local belief is that unless the deceased is given a proper send off their spirit will return to haunt any relatives who failed to make the required effort to bury the corpse in style. This means that it may take anywhere between two and ten years to save enough money to put on a bash that keeps up with the Jones's and saves face. During this time the dead body is kept in the family house - embalmed to stop it rotting, I think. I heard of one young woman who lived and worked in Java and had saved the equivalent of twenty thousand pounds (an enormous amount of money by local standards) towards the burial of her grandfather. She was furious that she had had to contribute so much towards the ceremony but was under huge pressure from her family to do so. Unfortuately I didn't get to attend a funeral but people who did have told me that all and sundry (including tourists) are welcome to attend. Several buffalo are ritually slaughtered (throats cut) and butchered to feed the masses and when one realises that a decent buffalo can cost the equivalent of an average car one begins to understand why funerals can be so expensive.
Traditionallly, bodies were interred in wooden coffins and suspended on a cliff face or buried in holes in large rocks though now concrete tombs are more in vogue. Effigies of the dead are placed nearby and offerings, including cigarettes, are left to accompany them in the afterlife.

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Toraja is also famous for the unique and distinctive style of the roofs of traditional buildings. Some say that the upcurving ends represent the prow and stern of boats while others claim they represent the horns of their beloved buffalo. This seems the more likely explanation as buffaloes are status symbols and play an important role in Torajan culture.

My next bus journey was nothing like as comfortable as the one from Makassar. This time I was squeezed into the corner of the back seat and the journey seemed endless as we slowly crawled along the narrow, winding roads of central Sulawesi. As the crow flies it's only 99 miles between Rantepao and Tentena but by road it must be twice that. We finally arrived at 10.00pm after thirteen agonisingly uncomfortable and bruising hours. The only saving grace, some beautiful wild and rugged scenery. I shouldn't really complain; some people I met took seventeen hours and I heard stories of the journey sometimes taking as much as 24 hours. After a day's rest in Tentena I chartered a car together with a Finnish couple, Olli and Aino, first for the three hour ride to Poso and then in another car to Ampana. This took a further six hours, including a half hour stop while the driver went to a mosque en route for Friday prayers.
Eventually we were dropped off in Ampana and spent most of the night trying to sleep through the karaoke from a nearby bar that went on till 3.00am. This was quite a surprise in such an obviously Muslim town which I imagined would be extremely conservative in its outlook. The next day it was up early for the one and a half hour speedboat ride to The Togean Islands. I stayed at Paradise Resort and it was. Good food and company and lots of snorkelling from the beach - a two metre walk from my very comfortable bungalow. Also a nearby lake which was teaming with jellyfish. It was quite surreal snorkelling amongst them, watching them bump into each other and head off indifferently a new direction. They also bump into the snorkellers but as they are stingless it's not a problem (the jellyfish, that is).
Unfortunately, after three days paradise was lost when my bungalow was broken into and some money was taken. Not a large amount but enough to spoil the experience. On the advice of the resort manageress I callled the police and four young "detectives" arrived about eight that evening from the mainland. They interrogated the staff and, I heard later, slapped some of them around but unsurprisingly couldn't solve the crime. If I had known they would get violent I'd never have involved them in the first place. Anyway, fearing that they might just frame anyone to get a result I decided to take no further action and they returned to Ampana. The whole episode soured the atmosphere and many guests decided to leave the next morning, myself included.

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Paradise Resort
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My bungalow at Paradise Resort
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Aino and Olli from Finland

Together with Olli and Aino I sailed in a small outrigger for the PoyaLisa resort, a vey small island near Bomba. It was possible to walk from one end of the island to the other in less than five minutes and it boasted the curious feature of having sea on both sides of the beach. At high tide part of the beach was submerged, thus forming two islands which one had to paddle between. There was no fresh water on the island and this was brought over from the main island everyday so we could at least make tea and coffee and have a bucket shower in the very, very basic bathroom. Electricity was available for five or six hours in the evening and there was no internet or telephone connection available at all. I stayed for nine days and it was utter bliss!!! While there I qualified as an open water diver at the dive school on the main island a couple of hundred metres away. It's a very strange feeling to sink 20 metres below the waves and once or twice I had to fight the urge to get back to the surface as fast as possible. But as my confidence and skills began to increase I grew to love the feeling of being weightless and so incredibly close to beautiful corals and the most amazing creatures.

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Outriggers -the local taxis
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Sunset and my bungalow at PoyaLisa
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My other bungalow at PoyaLisa - I moved - the three minute walk to the beach from the other one was far too tiring!
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Bomba Dive Centre
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My gorgeous diving instructor, Pia
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On the way back from the last dive on the open water course - now a qualified diver
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From the ferry leaving the Togeans

They say that the Togean Islands are very difficult to get to (they're right) but even harder to leave, and again I agree. I could have spent weeks there, swimming, snorkelling, diving, swinging in my hammock and eating freshly grilled fish (and cake for breakfast - the locals think this is what westerners do!) but sadly my visa began to run out and so with great reluctance I tore myself away and took a two hour outrigger ride through very choppy seas (quite scary) to the nearest large town and then the twice weekly ferry to Gorontalo where six of us jammed ourselves into a rented a car for the ten hour trip to Manado. Our driver was only a young lad and he spent much of the journey talking and texting on his phone. He was also very tired and at one point we had to insist that he stop and sleep for half an hour before he managed to kill us all. But we made it in one piece and after couple of days in Manado I boarded a plane for the next leg of the adventure. Borneo!

Posted by MalcolmB 21:22 Archived in Indonesia Comments (3)

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